Why It’s a Big Deal If You Get Bitten by a Cat

Take it from this veterinarian — if it happens, you’ll want to see your doctor immediately.

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Some cat bites take days to start causing major problems for the human immune system. By: morton

“How often do you get bitten by a patient?”

That’s on the top 10 list of questions we veterinarians are asked by the general population. “Almost never” is our general reply. This is the truth. Otherwise, you would be looking at a bunch of vets with no fingers, faces or other extremities.

Bites are no laughing matter. Many of us have been hurt by some animal at one time or another. We understand the risks, we are trained to protect the animal and ourselves from injury — and we generally go home at the end of the day without serious wounds.

But we all have our personal bite stories. As a small animal veterinarian, I worry most about a cat bite.

That Sneaky Cat

Tiny little teeth that make a simple but direct hit? Feline fangs lurking deep toward your tendon or bone when you least suspect it? Yep — these are scenes from a bad cat bite.

The sweetest, nicest family cat can still cause a nasty bite wound. It’s worth a call to your doctor — meaning your physician, not your animal’s vet — if Munchkin the Muncher bites you.

Veterinarians are not allowed to give medical advice to humans, except to tell them to seek the advice of their physician. If clients call in about a cat bite, I feel obligated to tell them it could be serious and requires medical attention, even if they don’t think it’s that big a deal.

Don’t Sleep on a Cat Bite

Dog bites are often more dramatic than cat bites. Even if a dog bite is not that serious, it’s usually associated with growling and an aggressive incident. Your little cat, however, might turn around quickly with no warning and quietly nail your hand.

Unfortunately, serious infections can result from cat bites that people think are minor, even days after the original attack. My unscientific study among ER physicians and vets can attest to the serious, insidious nature of the “simple” cat bite.

Why is a cat bite so bad? Evidence is still pending. Strange bacteria in the feline mouth and the deep penetration of the needle-like cat tooth deep into the human skin are reasons to be wary.

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Some cats may nibble, but if they puncture your skin with their teeth, you may be at risk for infection. By: tommyhj

Cats Do Bite Vets

I don’t suffer a bite too often. I’ve seen more than 10,000 animals in my lifetime — if they all had bitten me, I’d be a small piece of mangled matter looking for some sunlight. Thankfully, I remain intact.

There have been some close calls and a few tough bites. There was one bad dog bite when I was a veterinary student that was my fault. There was the ferret “kill bite” episode that was highly upsetting and painful, but once someone extricated the ferret from my finger, I was OK.

There is the occasional rodent or bird that, regardless of appropriate excellent restraint technique, has latched onto an extremity. There were the snake and the iguana bites. But cat bites can be a different kind of horror movie deep within the skin.

You Never Forget Your First Real Cat Bite

My worst cat bite occurred when I was a veterinary technician and received what I thought was a mild cat bite. I flushed my hand under hot water for a long time after the bite. I was left with 2 dark spots where the cat’s teeth penetrated the vessel just above my index finger.

I woke up later that night in excruciating pain. My entire hand up to my arm was throbbing — and it didn’t look so good. I still have my hand and my arm 30 years later, but it could have taken a turn for the worse.

This video from the Mayo Clinic discusses what happens to badly infected cat bites:

Many veterinarians and animal health professionals have similar stories. We flush and clean any bite wound — but particularly cat bites — for at least 5 minutes. Then a call or a visit to a physician is warranted and antibiotics are given.

Even with these measures, one can end up in the hospital with IV antibiotics and surgery on the area where the cat mouth bacteria wreaked havoc.

Bottom Line

Don’t think any cat bite is a simple affair. Call your doctor immediately — you need treatment.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Oct. 11, 2018.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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