Cat bites are very, very serious. While a dog bite may look messy and sore from bruising, a cat bite is insidious. As many doctors have told me, there is no such thing as a little cat bite, because 80% of cat bites become infected.
As a professional cat groomer, I handle many cats of different temperaments through a regular working day. Part of my job is to control and minimize risks for the visiting felines, coworkers, and myself, while giving some guidance to owners. Cats usually bite as a defensive reaction due to fear. Grooming requires intensive and for some cats, intrusive handling because we have to work in some very personal zones to address grooming problems. Mitigating fears is a large part of what a professional cat groomer does to make the grooming process go quickly and smoothly. No one should ever risk handling a fractious cat beyond their comfort zone, but even still, bites can still happen.
Cats are lightening fast, flexible and dexterous, and sport eighteen weapons of mass destruction (claws), plus fangs. Cats vary hugely in their tolerance for handling, and their trust in humans. Do not be fooled into thinking that gloves or cat muzzles can protect you. Cats can easily bite through both. A cat’s teeth are perfectly designed to puncture, and deposit bacteria, leaving it to brew deep under your skin.
Inside a cat’s mouth there is a lot of different bacteria that is capable of causing tissue infections in bite wounds. One of the most common bacterium is the highly pathogenic, Pasteurella multocida. An infected bite wound will become red, swollen and painful within hours, and the infection can spread through the surrounding tissues. This condition is called cellulitis. It can also spread through the blood to other areas of the body, causing a condition called septicemia, aka blood poisoning. Infected people may suffer from fever and flu-like symptoms, tissue loss, and rarely, can even die without proper medical treatment. The elderly, children, and immune suppressed people are particularly at risk for infections.
More than a couple of my colleagues have received cat bites that have turned into serious infections. What looked like a small puncture on the hand turned into a flaming infection in the blood stream up into the arm. Weeks of I.V. transfusions of antibiotics at the hospital became necessary to stop infection and further tissue damage. Some needed physiotherapy to regain lost hand strength. One required emergency surgery to prevent further tissue damage. An ignored cat bite can put you out of work for weeks or end a grooming career.
So what to do if you are the receiving end of a cat bite?
- Rinse, rinse, rinse with flowing water for 5 to 10 minutes and let the blood flow. Dilution prevents pollution and irrigating the bacteria from the bite is your first step.
- Use an antiseptic cleaner like iodine and do not bandage.
- Get medical attention IMMEDIATELY. Do not wait and see if an infection starts. Once it starts, it can spread like wildfire, killing tissue and or entering the bloodstream, and you might be sitting in a waiting room for hours before actually getting seen by a physician.
Remember that antiseptics only reduce microorganisms on the surface of the tissue and what are needed are antibiotics to treat infection within the tissues. Hydrogen peroxide is counter productive on punctures and antibiotic ointment doesn’t work sitting on the surface while bacteria breeds and spreads below within your tissue and possibly your bloodstream.
Bottom line: Never treat a cat bite lightly.
Cat scratches are also cause for concern, and that will be discussed in my next blog about cat scratch fever.