Louise Holton has been trapping community cats since the 1970s and having them neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their colony. In the process, she has received some serious cat bites over the years.
Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, is always current on her tetanus vaccination. And by now, she’s a pro at treating bite wounds, cleaning them thoroughly with soap and water and applying antibiotic cream.
If in Doubt, See a Doctor
So what constitutes a “serious” cat bite? Vicki Thayer, DVM, DABVP (feline), owner of Purrfect Practice PC, in Lebanon, Oregon, says: “They can be dangerous and life-threatening in some situations. A cat’s canine teeth are long and thin, creating deep and narrow wounds. Bacteria from a cat’s mouth such as Pasteurella are delivered deep into a bite wound and these bacteria thrive with very low oxygen levels in the tissue, therefore multiplying and creating inflammation and infection.”
Deep wounds next to a bone or joint can create serious osteoarthritis. A cat’s premolar and molar teeth, made for cutting and crushing, can damage tissue, resulting in pain and infection.
“In any immunocompromised individual, these infections can even more serious leading to septicemia or infection spread through the blood stream to other organs,” Dr. Thayer says. “Diabetes is an increasing disease among people and diabetics can be immunocompromised and therefore prone to serious infections.”
For any cat bite, Thayer recommends, immediately flush the wound with warm water and clean with mild soap and water. To help relieve pain for a bite on the hand, soak it in warm water. The wound should remain uncovered if possible. Leaving it unbandaged makes it easier to soak the wound to clean it and relieve pain and reduces infection risk by exposing the wound to oxygen so bacteria don’t multiply.
The best advice is to see your doctor, especially if the bite is from a cat unknown to you with an unknown vaccine history or if your tetanus vaccination is overdue. Bites may require stitches or treatment with antibiotics. If you don’t get to the doctor right away, watch for any increased pain, redness, red streaks from the wound, swelling, and fever. Seek medical advice immediately if you notice those things.
Why Cats Bite
Whether it’s a community cat or your own beloved feline, receiving a hard bite (some call it the kill bite) is a traumatic event. There are a number of reasons why cats bite. Knowing the signs can be bite-saving for you.
With community cats, it’s easy to understand that they are frightened and will bite when cornered. Is there a way to make a cat more comfortable in new surroundings?
“One of the best things to do is to leave the cat alone to adjust,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, who practices in West Palm Beach, Florida. “So often, we believe that if we are kind and we show the cat that we are kind, they will come around more quickly. We certainly want to show the new kitty that we are kind, but also give the kitty some space.”
Dr. Radosta, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says the most common reasons cats bite, outside of play, are fear, anxiety, and stress. Cats don’t have many ways to communicate with us that we understand. The biting cat might have tried with other body language cues such as a swishing tail or ears laid back to warn us against approaching. When we ignore those signals, cats bite. Cats may also bite in response to pain and discomfort.
“Cat pain and discomfort can easily go unnoticed as cats are not forthcoming and veterinarians aren’t great at assessing pain in cats,” Radosta says.
Many times, you may not know a cat is about to bite. “Each cat has his own ways of communicating, but the common signs are ears back, tail thumping, pupils dilated, and averting the gaze by turning the head slightly,” Radosta says
So, is there a way to ever really know if a cat is going in for the kill bite? “Mostly this comes from getting to know your cat and reading his body language,” Radosta says. “Then, when you can read your cat, make sure that you respect his boundaries. Most bites can be avoided.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Sandra Toney has been writing about cats for over 25 years and is an award-winning member of Cat Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America. She has written for many print and online magazines about cat health and behavior as well as authoring eight books. She lives in northern Indiana with her cat, Angel.
Published April 26, 2021