Most house cats are friendly and easy-going around people, so they aren’t very likely to bite. Indoor-outdoor cats encounter more dangers in their daily lives so they are more inclined to bite if upset or frightened. Stray cats with little close human contact are much more likely to bite a person since they often see them as a threat.
Cat bites are often associated with play behavior which has turned into roughhousing. But the most common scenarios leading to bites involve the cat becoming frightened or being in pain. In spite of their being smaller and less damaging to tissue than dog bites, cat bites are more likely to result in dangerous infections. And if they involve the hand or forearm, they can lead to permanent disability.
Diseases from Cat Bites
Rabies is always the biggest concern with animal bites, and particularly cat bites, because this viral disease is almost universally fatal unless the victim receives prompt medical treatment. Cats in the United States are far more commonly affected by rabies than dogs. Rabies is shed in the cat’s saliva and the disease spreads when saliva comes in contact with a wound in the skin or with mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth.
Cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection that causes painful lymph node enlargement, is primarily spread via cat scratches but can also be transmitted by bite. This disease is usually associated with untreated flea-infested cats. It can be fatal in persons with immune system deficiencies.
Bacterial wound infection is by far the most likely disease to be acquired as a result of a cat bite. Cats’ mouths harbor a vast array of bacteria, some of which can cause massive tissue infection. Local infection can lead to a painful abscess, and many bite infections spread rapidly and can enter the bloodstream. The end result in rare cases might be permanent disability, loss of limb, or even death.
What to Do if a Cat Bites You
Step One – Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and warm water. If possible, apply antibiotic ointment and bandage the wound.
Step Two – See a doctor if the bite involves hand, wrist, forearm, foot, ankle, or genitals. If it is adjacent to an implant or prosthesis, an area of tissue with chronic swelling, or involves torn skin, you should also seek medical attention. Patients with chronic illnesses or who have had their spleen removed should always consult a physician after any animal bite.
Step Three – Report the bite to your local public health department. They will need to determine whether or not rabies is a concern depending on the circumstances of the bite. This step is extremely important if the cat appears ill or is behaving abnormally, if it is a stray and not available for examination or quarantine, or if it is not up-to-date on rabies vaccination.
Step Four – Try to determine why the cat bit you. Were you doing something objectionable to it? Were you forcibly restraining it? Was it frightened? Is the cat normally difficult or aggressive? If you are the cat’s owner, be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine whether or not the cat has an underlying issue which led to the bite.
An Ounce of Prevention
Learn how to handle your cat properly – some cats are very particular about how they are picked up or held. Have your veterinarian show you techniques for handling your cat, since he/she is an expert in the subject. Teach everyone in the home how, especially children. Petting the cat slowly and gently and learning not to anger or frighten it is something all children should learn.
Be careful how you interact with your cat in play. Never use your hands as playthings – your cat will learn that it’s acceptable to bite and scratch hands, and in their little cat brains that means acceptable all the time. Let the cat learn to take its aggressions out on toys rather than humans.
Cats will sometimes deliver a “love bite” in association with petting. In most cases this does not penetrate the skin, but some cats will bite hard or even develop petting aggression and lash out angrily. Every cat seems to have a petting “timer”, and by observing closely an owner can often tell when the cat is reaching its limit. Always stop petting as soon as you suspect the cat has had enough.
Take your cat to the veterinarian at least once a year for a physical exam and vaccinations. Be sure to have it vaccinated against rabies regardless of its lifestyle – all cats are susceptible to rabies and indoor-only cats have been known to contract the disease from bats entering the home. Have your veterinarian evaluate the cat for any painful conditions which could make it more likely to bite.
Cats are wonderful, delightful creatures which can enrich our lives in countless ways. Be proactive in avoiding cat bites by examining your own behavior, and know what to do if bitten so as to avoid any health consequences.