Animal bites are very common. Millions of people are bitten every year, and the resulting burden in terms of pain, infection and financial costs is astounding. Dog bites get the most press because they often cause significant trauma. Dogs have larger and stronger mouths, and can bite repeatedly and more aggressively in some attacks. Deaths attributed directly to pet bites pretty much exclusively involve dogs.
Cat bites are smaller and have less chance of causing significant injury to tissues, but they may be more severe in the long run. There’s a scientific paper called “Cat bite infections: biological warfare amongst cats,” which is a testament to the nasty populations of bacteria that live in cats’ mouths. It’s not just the presence of bacteria that’s a problem (afterall, dogs’ mouths are full of potentially nasty bacteria as well) – the nature of cat teeth and the resulting bite wounds is a major factor. Cat bites often result in small but deep puncture wounds. This pushes bacteria deep into the tissues, where they’re harder to get rid of and which results in a much greater chance of causing an infection. Furthermore, cats tend to bite areas that are high risk for development of bad infections, especially hands, which have a complex and susceptible network of tendons, tendon sheaths, joints and nerves. Bites that appear to be minor can end up causing serious problems, often much worse that an initially more dramatic dog bite.
Really, you don’t want to be bitten by either a dog or a cat (or an iguana, hamster, person or anything else). A large percentage of bites are avoidable, and knowing how to interact with animals and read signals of aggression or fear are critical. If you are bitten, prompt and proper care of bites is required to prevent serious, long-term complications.
More information on bites, including management of bites, is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page. The CDC has a podcast that includes information about bite-avoidance that can be accessed by clicking here.