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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