Even the most well-natured, lovable cat has the potential to bite. Particularly if an animal is frightened or in pain, it may lash out with teeth and claws, even at its most trusted human companion. Many of us are used to sustaining small cuts and wounds in everyday life, and at times it hardly seems worthwhile to trouble a physician to look at a little cat bite. But 20-50% of cat bites become infected, compared to 4-20% of dog bites. The bacteria responsible are most often combinations of Pasteurella spp., Staphylococcus spp., Streptococcus spp. and others. In some cases, particularly when Pasteurella multocida is involved, the infection can develop very rapidly (within hours) and may become very serious, or even spread to the bloodstream. Cat scratch disease (Bartonella henselae infection), despite the name, can also be transmitted by cat bites. Cat bites can be very deep, even though they look very small at the level of the skin, which may lead to infection of things like joints and tendons under the skin, which are more serious.
You should see a doctor about any cat bite on a hand, over a joint, over a tendon sheath (such as the wrist or ankle), over a prosthesis or implant, in the genital area, or that causes a deep tear. You should also see a doctor for any bite if you happen to have a weakened immune system for any reason (e.g. HIV/AIDS, cancer or transplant patients).
The best way to prevent infection is to prevent the cat from biting you in the first place!
- Use common sense – know how to handle a cat properly so that it is not frightened or uncomfortable. If a cat growls at you or tries to get away, let it go!
- Don’t let cats play with your hands, feet or hair. Use a nice cat toy instead.
- Don’t approach strange cats, especially strays. If you are bitten by a cat that may not have been vaccinated for rabies, it is very important to report the incident to you local public health department and your doctor, as you may need to receive rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
More information on cat bites, what to do if you are bitten and ways to prevent cat bites can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.