Cat bites can be bad, very bad because of infection but most often they are not. It depends on the circumstances. Online media tend to hype up the gravity of a cat bite for obvious reasons.
Today there are two opposing views on the internet about the seriousness of cat bites. On the one side there is the Daily Mail, saying that being bitten by a cat is much more serious than you think. They say that 80 perent of cat bites to the hand become infected. This has to be incorrect from two standpoints – the nature and circumstances of the bite1 and how it is dealt with2. Being bitten on the hand is perhaps the most dangerous and obvious place but there will be millions of cat owners – good and sensible cat owners – who have been bitten on their hand without any consequence whatsoever. It depends on the cat and the circumstances under which the bite occured.
On the other side, the NHS in Britain, in a blog on their website, say there is inaccurate reporting of cat bite dangers and they refer to the Daily Mail. What they are saying is that news media such as the Daily Mail, selectively interpret scientific studies in a way which allows them to hype up an article and give it a false authority. This unfair on cats.
I’ll provide three stories about cat bites to provide a wide spectrum.
The Daily Mail Article
Amanda Lynch is the author of the article. Usefully, she writes about a personal experience. It provides the core of her article.
As is commonplace in many homes in the UK, a wandering B&W cat entered her home through the back door. The cat looked like a domestic cat. But there is a fine line between strays and wandering domestic cats. In her own words, she “instinctively scooped up the moggie to protect it from the barking dogs” (her dogs).
The cat, in a determined and committed outburst of defensive aggression, attacked her. There is a big difference between a cat genuinely and fearlessly attacking a person and a cat play fighting with a person. The former is genuinely, potentially dangerous. The bite can go deep and if the bite is on the hand bacteria can be injected near the bone and cartilage leaving a small puncture wound. Stray cats who are less domesticated are more likely to attack under the described circumstances.
Amanda was badly scratched and bitten. Moral: don’t try and pick up a strange cat. Never.
She had suffered a “deep bite to my right hand, just over the knuckles of my last two fingers”.
She went to a local minor injuries unit and her wound was washed and she was given antibiotics. Days later the infection had got worse. Her hand was swollen. She attended A&E and was kept in overnight on an antibiotic, intravenous drip. She had been diagnosed with “cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the deeper layers of skin and underlying tissue”.
It cleared up thanks to heavy antibiotic treatment. But without acting wisely as she did the infection could have become extremely serious even resulting in sepsis, a life-threatening condition.
That is the first story of a cat bite. The bite was bad and committed by a fearful cat in full attack mode. A fearsome prospect. This should be extremely rare.
My Neighbour, and old lady
I have written about this before. Once again a large stray cat wandered into her flat. She tried to remove him. He attacked her (moral: don’t try and push around a large, stray male cat – never).
The lady was bitten on the hand and arm. She ignored it to her peril. About a fornight later her hand and arm were badly swollen and she was admitted to hospital. She never fully recovered. She left hospital to go to a care home where she died. While being uncritical of the lady, the whole sorry episode was her fault.
I have looked after cats for donkey’s years. In play I have been bitten on the hands, rarely. The skin may have been broken but the bite was clearly non-threatening in terms of health. Common sense prevails. We should know when a cat bite is serious.
I have met many stray and feral cats. I have always respected them. I have never tried to force myself on them such as picking them up. On one occasion I tried to intimidate a wandering domestic cat away from my cat as we were walking together while returning to my flat. I stuck my foot out towards him. He attacked the foot with real aggression. Point made. It was my fault. I received a minor bite to my lower leg which cleared up of its own accord.
Other than that encounter I have never been bitten by a strange cat. Experienced cat caretakers will know how to avoid bites and to deal with them in an appropriate manner when they do, rarely, occur.
It is said by the media that 80 per cent of cat bites to the hand will become infected. I think this is not telling the full story. It could be re-written: 80 per cent of deep cat bites made aggressively to the hand will become infected. Such cat bites are rare and nearly always the fault (if we are honest with ourselves) of the person bitten.
Recently in late June 2019, I was bitten by my cat after he was chased by a young fox. My cat bit my bare right leg, hard. It became infected and took three courses of antibiotics to resolve. This was transferred aggression by my cat. He wanted to retaliate and bit the fox but could not so he bit me instead. It was my fault because I was feeding the foxes.
So, in conclusion and in answering the question in the title: How bad are cat bites, we have to say that they can be serious because of the bacterial infection that can ensue. It is in the hands of the person involved to (a) avoid serious cat bites particularly to the hand where bones are nearer the skin and (b) to use common sense in deciding if the bite requires professional treatment which invariably means antibiotics. If in doubt play safe.
Notes: 1. “the nature and circumstances of the bite” – meaning how deep the bite and how aggressively it was delivered and where it was delivered — 2. “how it is dealt with” – meaning how long the person waited before treating the bite if it was serious and how the person treated the bite at home.