Cat Bite Injuries to Humans

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Why do cat bites get infected so easily?

When a cat bites, its sharp canine teeth easily puncture the skin, leaving small but deep wounds in the skin.

These punctures quickly seal over, trapping bacteria from the cat's mouth under the skin of the bite victim, where they can easily multiply. Cat scratches cause a similar type of injury: the extremely sharp, curved nails penetrate deep into the skin, essentially injecting bacteria deep into the puncture wound.

Are cat bites dangerous?

Cat bites can be dangerous both to other animals and to humans. All cats carry bacteria in their mouths that can cause tissue infections in bite wounds. One of the more common bacteria is the highly pathogenic Pasteurella multocida. An infected cat bite wound will be red, swollen, and painful. Depending on the location and depth of the wound, the bacteria can spread in the surrounding tissues, causing a condition called cellulitis. Bacteria can also distribute through the blood to other areas of the body, causing a condition called septicemia (often called blood poisoning).

Infected people may suffer from fever and flu-like symptoms and, rarely, may die if proper medical treatment is not sought. Children, the elderly, ill, and immunosuppressed individuals are particularly vulnerable to developing severe infections if bitten by a cat.

What immediate action should I take if bitten by a cat?

Immediately wash the wound under running water for at least 5 minutes. Avoid scrubbing the wound vigorously, or using strong disinfectants or other chemicals, since this may harm tissue and delay wound healing. You may clean the wound with a mild soap solution or a mild salt solution (mix 1 teaspoon table salt in 2 cups of water). Control bleeding by applying direct pressure to the wound using an absorbent dressing or bandage.

You should see a physician as soon as possible. Most cat bite wounds are small punctures that drive pathogenic bacteria deep into the skin. Left untreated, a serious infection can develop within 24 to 48 hours.

Do I really need to see a doctor?

Yes, it is advisable to see a physician as soon as possible to properly treat the injury. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotic ointment and possibly oral antibiotics, to reduce the risk of infection developing at the site of the bite or elsewhere in the body. Some wounds may need to be sutured (stitched) while others will be left open to heal. A tetanus booster may also be recommended.

Depending on the severity of the bite and the circumstances surrounding the bite, your doctor may also recommend that you receive a rabies prophylaxis treatment.

What will happen to the cat that bit me?

In many jurisdictions, your physician will be required to file a report with the local department of health. If the cat's rabies vaccine status is known and is current, the cat will usually be placed under a short quarantine, ranging from 10 to 14 days. If the cat's rabies vaccination has lapsed, the quarantine may last longer.

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