It seems like pet bite articles come in waves, with a recent cluster showing the variable quality in advice that’s available.

Often, they are holiday "filler" articles that provide some basic useful information but overall are of limited use or even harmful based on their very superficial approach. They often mention rabies, get a quick quote from a veterinarian or someone in public health, but don’t emphasize the potential problems that can occur with even apparently minor bites. The thing that often raises my ire is the common statement about watching the bite and going to a doctor if your limb swells up or has pus oozing out, without talking about the need for proper post-bite care to actually prevent that from happening.

Anyway, I came across a couple of better articles recently, that get some good information across in a nice, readable manner. One, an article in "The Herald News" entitled "Cat bites always require check by doctor", gets a very important point across quickly.

The news story details the saga of the PJ, a 13-year-old cat, and his owner. PJ bit the woman on the arm causing a seemingly minor wound, but by the next day, her arm was red and swollen, necessitating a round of intravenous antibiotics and four days in hospital. In the article, Gail Steele, an infection prevention nurse, states "Cat bites.. must always be considered medical emergencies. This is especially true when they occur in the hand because that area has a richer blood supply…Their sharp little teeth are like little needles, and they inject bacteria right into soft tissue…"

This is a pretty extreme example of what can happen after a cat bite, but it’s far from rare. It’s not really clear whether this person’s infection would have been prevented with normal practices. Bites over certain sites, like the hand, foot, joints, tendon sheaths and prosthetic devices, and bites to young kids, elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems typically require prophylactic antibiotics.

If this was actually a bite over the arm, as reported, antibiotics might not have been given, even though cat bites are much higher risk for infection than dog bites. However, the key is that bites should be assessed so proper determination can be made about the need for antibiotics. All infections won’t be prevented but appropriate medical care should reduce the risk and also allow for adequate consideration of whether rabies exposure might be a concern.

There’s a sad end to this article, as PJ bit his owner again a few months later. The bite was over the shin and, given her previous problems, antibiotics were provided. However, the owner still ended up with an abscess that required surgical intervention and took months to heal. (Whether this person has really bad luck, whether PJ has a particularly bad mix of bugs in his mouth or whether the owner has an unidentified problem with her immune system is unclear, but back-to-back severe infections is a major issue, especially with a cat that is prone to biting.) The woman’s daughter ended up taking PJ home with her, but after another unprovoked bite, he was euthanized.

Cat bites aren’t always this bad, and in fact, most don’t result in complications. However, that’s not to downplay the potential problems. When you consider how often cats bite, how often cat bites are not properly cared for because they appear to be minor, and the ability of a cat bite to inoculate bacteria deep into the tissues, it’s easy to see how bad things can happen. Reducing the risk of cat bite infections involves a few basic steps:

  • Reducing bites. Good handling and training (of both cats and people) can reduce the likelihood of bites. This is particularly important with kids, who may be bitten through rough or excessive handling of a cat.
  • Bite first aid. Prompt cleaning of the wound can reduce bacterial contamination. Thorough cleaning with soap and water can have a big impact on the likelihood of infection.
  • Medical care. Bites over certain sites or to certain individuals (see above) almost always require antibiotics. There’s less consensus over other types of bites, but getting medical care is a good idea in any case to determine if there are any factors that indicate a need for antibiotics.
  • Rabies avoidance. Every bite should be reported to public health so the rabies aspect can be covered. The biting animal needs to be identified and observed for 10 days. If it’s healthy after 10 days, it couldn’t have been shedding rabies virus. If the biting animal cannot be identified, it’s likely that post-exposure treatment for rabies will be required.