When the domestic cat could kill people (19th century)

There was a time before antibiotics when the domestic cat was more dangerous because infected scratches or bites could lead to a serious injury and on rare occasions death.  The first antibiotic was penicillin which was discovered in 1928 in England. Also rabies was a threat in 19th century England. Packs of stray dogs were the main carriers.

Cats' Meat Men

The era in London – 19th century – when there were cats’ meat men and no antibiotics.

Here are three British examples of deaths caused by cat bite or scratch.

The News of the World, on July 13, 1851, reported a death from the bite of cat. An elderly lady was used to allowing her neighbour’s cat to come into her house and drink milk. On this occasion, she decided to put the cat outside and while doing so for some reason (perhaps she mishandled the cat) the cat bit her. Within 10 days this respectable, elderly lady, was dead. She was bitten on the arm. The area became inflamed. The inflammation spread to her shoulder. The doctors tried various remedies without success. Of course, today, antibiotics would have cleared up the infection.

In another example of 1886, an errand boy, aged 13 years, was bitten by a cat. He was bitten on the hand. His mother took him to hospital. The wound was cauterised. Sometime later the boy complained that his hand was hurting. People did not take him seriously. They thought it was the cold weather. Two days later the boy was breathing in an unnatural manner. He requested to be taken to hospital. He asked for water but when some was brought to him, “he hissed and scratched like a cat”.

The boys reaction to water indicated rabies which was referred to as “hydrophobia” at that time. Apparently a black cat had bitten him and the witness had said that the black cat was making a strange noise. The boy had caught the cat by the tail. The cat turned and bit him. The doctor who saw him says he had a spasm of the throat and was unable to swallow. When the boy was breathed on the spasms reappeared. The boy could not drink any water from a cup but was able to lap water from a saucer or spoon. The boy became more violent and died shortly there after.

Note: rabies is still a big killer in Asia for example. There is a story of a Vietnamese man who ate the raw brains of a cat. The cat had rabies and of course the man died of rabies.

On January 1, 1856 a lady, aged 30 years, was punishing a cat in some way when the cat, apparently defending himself, scratched the lady on the arm. Initially, the scratch did not bother her until it became inflamed. Her arm became very painful. She sought medical assistance. She was admitted as an inpatient. The doctors were unable to get rid of the infection. She died in agony. The newspaper story does not explain how long it took for her to die.

Today, in Great Britain, none of these deaths would have occurred. Rabies no longer exists in Great Britain although with the loosening up of pet travel regulations there is some concern that it might return.

As mentioned, antibiotics and perhaps surgery would have cured the patients of their infections. However, one of the problems encountered by people, particularly more elderly people, who are bitten or scratched by a cat is that they do not act and seek medical assistance promptly if the area becomes inflamed. Most often the area will not become inflamed. However, if it does the person should of course see their doctor as soon as possible.

It is also worth noting that in the stories above it appears to me that in each case the person mishandled the cat. A lot of the time, perhaps all of the time, it is the person who needs to manage the cat in a more sensible and respectful manner exercising a sensible degree of caution. Prevention is obviously always better than a cure.

My thanks to Sarah Hartwell for telling me about these stories.

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When the domestic cat could kill people (19th century) — 21 Comments

  1. The paltry few people who have died in England from a cat scratch or bite just shows that it is of little concern. You have more chance of dying from lightning than from a cat bite. I suggest that those 3 people who died did not take elementary precautions such as washing and disinfecting the wound immediately , or may have had poor immune systems, something that was common in those days of widespread poor nutrition.

    • Agreed, Harvey.
      I doubt that the bites and scratches would have progressed to cellulitis (my assumptuion based on the description) or rabies had preventative precautions been taken.
      With the exception of the rabies situation, I can only assume, also, that those people were immune compromised. In healthy people, scratches and bites will, usually, resolve with basic first aid and without medical intervention.

      • We are far too eager to take antibiotics in this country. A heathy immune system will clear us of any infection in most cases.
        An animal bite will always cause swelling, discomfort, and will inflame. Antibiotic ointments and ice will take care of that and the system will take care of the rest. If no sign of resolution is seen in 5 days, then seek help.
        We are too quick to make our system lazy by pumping ourselves full of antibiotics. Believe me, we want our immune system in full force when we really need it.

      • It seems that some bites or scratches, albeit rarely, can result in an infection. On these occasions the person should seek treatment promptly. My link to an article about an old lady who got a serious infection refers to a person who lived very close to me as a neighbour. She was a much loved person of about 90 years of age and independent. The bite, which she neglected for a long time changed her life, put her in hospital whereafter she ended up in a residential nursing home.

      • These came from just a few archived newspapers (4 titles, each with only 1 or 2 year’s editions available for free). I suspect death from infection following an animal scratch or bite was very common in Britain at a time when disease was often thought to be caused by “bad air”.

        • Good point, Sarah. I guess that I need to be careful that I do not encourage cat haters to jump on the bandwagon and use this article to criticise the domestic cat. That is why I am being a little bit circumspect.

  2. My persian cat Tabatha scratched, my hand swelled up,I had to have anti biotics, so I probably would have been a goner. Thank goodness for modern medicine.

    • You acted sensibly and sought treatment quickly. I think you were unlucky to get an infection. The dangers of cat scratches and bites are grossly exaggerated in online newspapers. People like me who have kept cats for a long time have never got anywhere near having a problem with a bite or scratch. It really is a question of how we manage ourselves and our interactions with our cat. Sometimes, though, we can get unlucky even when we take care. I am pleased however, that you got over the scratch relatively easily.

  3. In days gone by, people died of allsorts of infections and illnesses that can now be treated. I suspect that many more people died of other infections than from being bitten or scratched by a cat.
    Medicine has progressed a long way over the centuries.

  4. Rule one of a cat bite or scratch that draws blood is let it bleed, encourage it to bleed because this hopefully washes out any potential infection, then of course use antiseptic and keep it clean and covered if necessary.
    The stories of yesteryear are interesting, of course people died of all sorts of infections, things that are minor to us these days were life threatening in those years when there were no antibiotics and medical treatments was rough, ready and experimental in most cases.
    As Michael said the people in the article suffered and died because of mishandling cats, I think cats did and some still do, have awful lives, not valued, easily replaceable and in some cases expected to exist on milk and hunting alone.
    The man who ate the cat’s raw brains and ended up with rabies gets no sympathy from me, I shudder to think of the circumstances that resulted in that meal.

  5. I can usually get rid of the infection myself but it’s painful. I just hate antibiotics. I’d rather reopen a painful wound and clean it out then take antibiotics – so that’s what I do and it works most every time.

    Probably not what I should be saying or doing.

    • Well, you are very brave. I see your point though. Antibiotics can be overused to the point where they are less useful. For years, I used to take antibiotics for a sinus problem during winter. Now I use lactose-free milk and I no longer have that sinus problem and therefore no longer take antibiotics for it. Interestingly, a doctor never suggested that it could have been the lactose in milk. The remedy was entirely self diagnosed. As they say prevention is better than cure.

  6. This one shows the state of medicine available at the time:

    News of the World, Oct 24th, 1886. SUSPECTED DEATH FROM THE BITE OF A CAT.- Yesterday Mr Carter held an inquest in St Thomas’s Hospital on Joseph Goffi, aged 26, lately living at Stewart’s-road, Wandsworth-road.

    The evidence of Mr Gustave Goffi, of South Lambeth, and other witnesses, was that about nine months since the deceased was engaged at Brown’s Veterinary Institution, Wandsworth-road. His duties were to attend to the horses, dogs, cats, and other animals. On the 4th September he was ordered to clean out a cage where a cat was confined. The animal became enraged, and flew at the deceased, severely lacerating and biting his left hand. Dr Whitmarsh was on the premises, and cauterised the wounds, which were five in number. He subsequently was seen at Charing-cross Hospital. It was ultimately arranged that the deceased should proceed to Paris. The deceased left England in September, and submitted himself to treatment at the hands of Mr Pasteur. On the return of Joseph Goffi from Paris, he called at Brown’s Veterinary Institute apparently quite cured. He appeared very cheerful, and in good health. Three days following the wounds had completely healed, when he complained to his brother, saying that he was suffering from serious pains over the abdomen. It was thought that the pains arose from drinking too much beer. The pains, however, increased and symptoms of paralysis set in. He was admitted as an in-patient at St Thomas’s Hospital, where he died in the presence of his wife.

    Dr Mackenzie sais he admitted the deceased on the 19th inst. The deceased was sensible [conscious], but very ill. He complained of acute pains in his stomach and loss of power of both legs. Deceased said that on his return to this country he got wet through. He also said that he had been under the treatment of M Pasteur, and was inoculated for the prevention of hydrophobia. A post-mortem had been made, but in order to trace any virus in the spinal cord it would take six weeks to complete the analysis. Witness notioned five wounds on the left hand, but the wounds had healed. The deceased was treated for acute positive paralysis, which in witness’s opinion had been brought on by cold, wet, and exposure. The post-mortem did not point to hydrophobia. The witness could not positively say that death was not due to the bite of the cat.

    The Coroner remarked that he had no power to pay the expenses of the analysis.

    The witness remarked that no doubt the general public would like to learn the result of the analysis; it would be for the public good.

    The jury returned a verdict “That death was due to acute positive paralysis, accelerated by cold, wer, and exposure.”

    (Oddly no-one asked for information about the cat’s health after it had bitten Mr Goffi, though it is possible the cat had already been destroyed.)

    • All I can say is wow, this really does indicate to us how fragile life could be in the 19th century. I have forgotten, but does rabies cause paralysis of the limbs? It seems impossible to state that getting wet and a bit cold caused his death but what is interesting is that people thought that it was possible. My bet is that he had hydrophobia. But who knows? He did not seem to exhibit the usual signs of rabies.

      • I’m pretty sure this wasn’t rabies as there weren’t te classical symptoms. I’m sure a lot of deaths were due to things like tetanus. Getting chilled could have lowered his immune defence to all sort of common germs.

  7. I’ve been bitten to to the bone by a cat and thanks to simple good hygiene, didn’t need antibiotics (I used a kaolin poultice to draw out mild infection). Clean running water and clean housing weren’t available to the poor unfortunates who got bitten in the 19th century. Any wound was liable to get infected and could cause systemic blood poisoning, or be a route for tetanus. Even “simple” staph or strep were killers back then.

    • Thank you Sarah for that comment. Good comment as usual. It is hard to imagine what life was like in the middle of the 19th century in London but it was certainly much more dangerous from the point of view of health and lives were much shorter in those days and one of the reasons is the reason you suggest.

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