Prevention & Treatment of Cat Bites & Scratches

by Joelle Steele

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When you have cats or work with cats, it's inevitable that you will, at some point, get scratched or bitten. In addition to my own kitties, I have volunteered in working with feral cat colonies. I can't count the number of times I have been scratched and bitten while trying to help a stray cat. Fortunately, I have never had any problems with infection from bites and scratches – just a lot of scars. But, it is always a possibility. Cat bites and scratches can introduce bacteria into the body that have the potential to cause serious infections and complications. Small children, elderly people, and individuals with compromised immune systems are most likely to become infected or have complications from cat bites and scratches.

Infections

A cat's mouth, like a human's, is loaded with bacteria. One of the bacteria that is most likely to lead to infection is Pasteurella multocida, and it is easily introduced into human tissue through a cat's bite. A cat's teeth are very sharp and can additionally inject the bacteria from your own skin, such as staphylococcus, into your body. The worst case scenario with a cat bite is rabies, although it is generally rare in cats in the United States, even feral ones.

Cat claws, like their teeth, are very sharp and can harbor bacteria such as E. coli and/or Bartonella henselae. The latter bacteria is most often passed on by kittens and can cause "cat scratch fever," which is symptomized by swollen lymph nodes in the neck and head, headache, fever, fatigue, and appetite loss.

Most bites and scratches that are infected will show symptoms within 24 hours. If left untreated, they may additionally cause serious complications such as "cellulitis" and "septicemia" (blood poisoning).

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria such as streptococcus and staphylococcus. It is symptomized by tenderness, warmth, redness, pain, swelling, fever, and flu-like symptoms. If untreated, the condition may worsen and the skin redness may spread and small red spots or blisters may appear.

Septicemia is a near-fatal condition in which the infection spreads to the blood stream. Symptoms include chills, high fever (or low body temperature), rapid heart rate (and/or low blood pressure), red spots on the skin (if cellulitis is also present), and mental confusion.

Treatment

If you are scratched or bitten, be sure that you thoroughly clean out the wound. Wash the wound itself and the surrounding area thoroughly. Begin by holding it under running water for about five minutes, letting it bleed to flush out as much bacteria as possible. Then wash the wound further with hydrogen peroxide. Apply an appropriate bandage to protect the wound from allowing additional bacteria into it.

If your tetanus shot is not current, get one immediately. If the wound swells and turns red or in any way appears to be infected within 24 hours, an immediate trip to the doctor may be in order, and you will probably be prescribed oral antibiotics. Be sure to take all of the pills prescribed. If you do not see improvement within a day or two, let your doctor know, as you may require different or stronger antibiotics.

If you have developed septicemia, hospitalization, probably in the Intensive Care Unit, will usually be a necessity. A variety of tests will be administered to confirm the infection and its underlying bacteria. Treatment includes, at the very least, IV fluids and antibiotics.

Rabies is a fatal disease caused by the Lyssavirus. There are only nine documented cases of survival in humans who were not treated with rabies vaccine. However, it is a very rare disease among cats in the United States and mostly occurs in populations of bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. But, it is still possible that your doctor may recommend post-exposure prophylaxis rabies treatment if you show any symptoms of rabies or if the cat is suspected of being infected with the virus.

Prevention

Cats can appear to be sweet and cuddly animals – and most of them are. But, cats are also genetically designed to kill, and they come into this world fully-equipped with on-board weaponry in the form of very sharp teeth and claws. While most domestic house cats are non-aggresive, their first instinct will be to defend themselves if they feel frightened or threatened in any way. The best way to prevent being injured by a cat is to do the following:

1) Never pick up a cat other than your own, and remember that under the right conditions any scared cat is a potentially dangerous cat, even to its owner.
2) Never pick up a cat or try to interfere with it if it is in conflict with another animal.
3) Never pick up a cat that shows any signs of abnormal or aggressive behavior.
4) Never pick up a stray or feral cat without wearing heavy-duty gloves and long-sleeved clothing that prevent puncture wounds.
5) Never arm- or hand-wrestle a kitten or an adult cat.

This article last updated: 02/08/2010.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.