If you see a cat flicking its tail, run. Cute and cuddly though they may be, cats are also carriers of some very unpleasant types of bacteria. If that bacteria makes its way from their mouth to your bloodstream, you could be in for a world of trouble. While it’s tempting to think a little nip from your cat is far less serious than a dog bite, a surprisingly high percentage of cat bites lead to infection. In the US, around 400,000 cat bites happen every year, with around 50% of those bites being serious enough to require treatment. If they’re left untreated, an infected cat bite can quickly and easily lead to potentially fatal conditions like septicemia. If you own a cat, here’s exactly what you need to know about cat bites.
Cat Bites and Infection
As healthline.com writes, there’s a ton of dangerous bacteria inside a cat’s mouth. Providing it stays in there, it’s fine. The problem is, it rarely does. When a cat bites you, their sharp, pointy teeth can puncture the skin and push that bacteria deep inside your skin’s tissue. And that’s when the problems start. When the puncture wound heals over, it’ll trap the bacteria under the skin. Thanks to the warm, pleasant conditions of its new environment, the bacteria will thrive. Unless the infection is treated promptly, it can lead to all kinds of issues, including:
As catbiteinfection.com (www.catbiteinfection.com/) notes, the most common organism found in infected cat bite wounds is Pasteurella multocida. While people with strong immune systems may be able to fend off the bacteria, those with compromised immunities are highly at risk of developing a severe infection.
If you haven’t had a tetanus vaccination within the past five years, a cat bite could potentially lead to tetanus through the introduction of the Clostridium tetani bacteria into your bloodstream. If you’ve been bitten and can’t recall the last time you were vaccinated, a tetanus booster might be needed.
Cat Scratch Disease
Of all the infections that can arise from a cat bite, cat scratch disease is perhaps the most well-known. The infection is caused when the bacteria Bartonella henselae transfers from a cat’s mouth to the bloodstream. Certain cats are more at risk of passing on the disease than others. If you’ve been bitten, scratched, or licked by a kitten, a stray cat, a flea-infested cat, or a cat that hunts and eats its prey, keep a keen eye out for any symptoms. According to cdc.gov, common symptoms of cat scratch disease include a red, swollen area around the site of the wound and round, raised lesions with pus. A fever, headache, poor appetite, and exhaustion are also potential symptoms, as are swollen or painful lymph nodes. In most people, cat scratch disease isn’t usually serious. However, people with weakened immune systems are at risk of hospitalization.
Cats, particularly stray, feral, or unvaccinated outdoor cats, are vulnerable to rabies. Fortunately, most cats are vaccinated, with the result that feline rabies is very rare… so rare, in fact, only three cases are reported in the US each year. However, while the probability of catching rabies is slim, you should always take a bite from an unvaccinated cat seriously. If you’ve been bitten by a stray, it’s advisable to contact animal control so they can catch the animal and monitor it for any symptoms. If it’s not possible to capture the cat, your doctor may recommend a course of treatment as a precaution.
One of the most common infections to result from a cat bite is caused by the streptococcus or ‘strep’ group of bacteria. Symptoms, which include painful swelling and redding around the infected area, can take over a day to make themselves known. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the rest of the body and lead to chronic illness. To treat the infection, a course of penicillin will be required.
The Staphylococcus aureus bacterium in cat saliva can result in Staphylococcal infection. Symptoms usually present within 24 hours and will typically include painful, swollen skin lesions and fever. Left untreated, the infection can lead to blood poisoning and pneumonia. To treat Staphylococcal infection, a course of topical, oral, or intravenous antibiotics will generally be required.
While infections are the most common consequence of a cat bite, there are various other potential problems that are no less serious. If a cat punctures the skin, they might damage a tendon. This is particularly common if they bite the delicate tendons and ligaments in the hand. Ruptured tendons can be extremely painful and will sometimes require surgery. Nerve injury is another, albeit rare, complication of a cat bite. Typical symptoms of nerve damage include numbness and paresthesia. Lastly, there’s a risk that a cat’s tooth may break or splinter when they bite. If any fragment of bone is left in the wound, it will need to be extracted.
What To Do if a Cat Bites You
Not all cat bites lead to infection, but enough do to warrant caution. If the bite or scratch hasn’t penetrated the skin, the chance of infection is minimal. However, play it safe by washing the area thoroughly with soap and water. Monitor the area over the following few days for any usual symptoms or pain.
If the bite has punctured the skin, extra caution is needed, particularly if the bite was on your hand. Wash the wound with soap and water and apply an antibiotic ointment. Protect it from any further risk of infection by covering it with a sterile bandage. If you notice any symptoms such as redness, swelling, pain, or fever, consult your doctor as soon as possible. If an infection has set in, swift treatment will be needed to prevent it from spreading further. You should also consult your doctor urgently if the wound won’t stop bleeding or seems deep or large, if the cat that’s bitten you is acting strangely or appears aggressive, if you haven’t received a tetanus jab in the past five years, or if you have a weakened immune system,
If you have any concerns about whether the cat has been vaccinated for rabies, contact your doctor immediately. If the cat is showing signs of rabies, or if they can’t be caught to allow them to be monitored, your doctor may recommend rabies postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment as a precaution.