A Serious Cat Bite Incident

by KayLaura

How a cat bite and a hospital stay influenced our decision on adopting a cat for our young family.

Should a family with young children own a cat?

The serious medical injuries caused by cat bites and why I wouldn't recommend cats for families with young children

    I grew up a cat lover.  The first cats came as a pair to my sister and I when we were 6 and 8 years old.  One was white, the other was black.  We named them Salt and Pepper.  The next cat I loved was named Misty and I got her as a mature cat.  After she was hit by a car I was given a baby kitten as a pet.  He was just 5 weeks old and I named him Handsome.  I was the only mother he ever knew.  When he was a baby and too young to care for himself I fed him milk from a bottle, wiped his bottom after he pooped and he would sleep on my pillow, buried in my thick hair, and purr all night in my ear. I loved that cat.  He grew into the most handsome cat I had ever seen, that is how he got his name.









   When I went to college I had to leave Handsome at my parent's house.  That was nearly 20 years ago.  In the past 20 years I have married and now have 5 children.  A boy, 10, a girl, 8, another daughter, 5, and two boys at the end: ages 2 1/2 and 8 months.  As most children do, mine have dreamed and begged for a pet for the better half of 6 years.  This Christmas, my husband and I were finally ready to add a pet to our already full and busy family.  The kids agreed that they would rather have a pet than a toy as a gift for Christmas.  We decided on a cat.

   The only two people in the family who really wanted a cat were my 8 year old daughter and myself.  Everyone else wanted a dog.  I am a stay-at-home mom and I knew the main responsibility of caring for the pet would fall on my shoulders, despite the kids' promises.  The family knew it was hard for me to take on any more responsibilities right now so all the dog lovers in the family agreed that if a cat was the only pet I would allow then they would be excited about it, even though it wasn't their first choice. 

   We figured cats were an easier pet because they were cleaner than dogs; they clean themselves and it is very easy to liter train them.  Cats don't need all the running and fetching that dogs need.  Cats don't bark and keep you awake all night.  Cats don't have to be trimmed or shed huge amounts of hair.  They don't have to be bathed.  They don't smell as much as dogs and get their slimy, spit-filled mouth all up in your face like a dog does.  Cats will cuddle in your lap and play with a small toy and then go to bed and pretty much take care of themselves.  That sounded like a good, easy pet for the busy life we lead. 

Which family pet is easiest to care for?

   We decided to get a cat because a pet from the bird, reptile or rodent families are not pets we will ever allow.  We did our homework on cats.  We visited several shelters, held many cats, ranging from kitten to full grown cat.  My husband and I both had cats growing up and so we weren't really too nervous to have one now.  We talked to many "cat people" and finally found one at a shelter that purred in our laps and let every one of our children pick her up and tote her around.  We fell in love with her quickly.  She was a black cat, about 3 years old and fully grown with white paws. Our children named her Midnight.

   That was on Dec. 19th.  The children had an early Christmas present!  We bought all the necessary cat items in a convenient "starter kit."  And looked into buying future cat supplies such as toys and play structures.  My children spent all their time caring for Midnight and playing with her.  They let her rest when she needed it and during her naps made a great cat house and play toys for her. 


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   We all seemed to be getting along so well until...

   Dec. 21st at 5:00 p.m.  My 8 year old daughter and 2 1/2 yr. old son were playing yarn with Midnight and her paw got caught in a blanket.  They were trying to get her paw unstuck, and were probably doing it wrong; forgetting to pull up and out instead of just pulling out.  The cat nipped at my daughter and then sunk her teeth into the hand of my little boy.  The children quickly started crying and screaming in horror that the cat had bit them.  I was passing through the room when it happened and attended to them immediately.  I was shocked.  None of my cats growing up had ever bitten me.  They had nipped at me, but none had ever given me or anyone else the severe puncture wounds I saw on my sons hand now.  I was confused and scared.  I didn't know how serious cat bites were but I assumed they were not that serious because sooo many people I know have small children and own cats.

   I washed my little boys' wound with anti-bacterial soap and then poured rubbing alcohol on it and covered it with anti-bacterial ointment.  We went about our nightly holiday festivities and my son didn't complain about it...until about 4 hours later when we were putting him to bed. 

What the cat bite wound looked like after 12 hours
What the cat bite wound looked like a...

   Our son had one bite mark in the top of his hand and 2 bite marks on the inside of his hand where his fingers meet the hand.  His hand with the puncture wound had swelled up to double it's size and was red with infection about a 1/2 inch diameter around the wound.  This is what it looked like just 12 hours after the bite.

  My husband and I quickly began researching online the seriousness of cat bites.  There were conflicting reports, but the scariest of them reported amputations because of untreated infections.  Thankfully, our brother-in-law is a doctor and so we called him to decide if we needed to rush to the emergency room that night.  My husband tends to jump to the worst conclusion immediately and I tend to err on the side of optimism.  So we spoke with our brother-in-law and, shockingly, he told us three important things. 

1. puncture wounds to any part of the body are very serious,

2. puncture wounds on the hand are one of the most serious because the hand is so small and bacteria and fluids get trapped in the tiny pockets inside the hand and can't be drained without surgery and

3. cat bites are the most serious bites of any pet, even more serious than human bites, because they carry so much bacteria in their mouths. 

   We soon realized we had a very serious problem from a seemingly good pet idea. When he awoke in the morning the infection had spread to almost half his hand and within 16 hours of the incident the infection had spread to his entire hand and was starting to spread up his arm.  And he had already had a dosage of antibiotic orally.  Things were looking very scarey.

   I spent 3 days and 2 nights in the hospital with our son because of this cat bite.  He had to be on IV antibiotics for 48 hours straight and was sent home with an oral antibiotic to last 10 days.  Every 6 hours in the hospital they were administering another dosage of antibiotic to aggressively attack the infection that was slowly climbing up his arm from the site of the wound. 

   Who knew, right??!!!  Everyone I told was shocked.  Almost 80% of my friends and family own pets, and most of them own cats.  Not a single one of them knew how serious a cat bite was.  None of them had ever heard of being hospitalized because of a cat bite.  Interestingly enough, none of the doctors I know, including our brother-in-law, own a cat.  Hmmmm.  Could it be because those that have medical training know something more than the rest of us?  In many ways, yes, and especially in the seriousness of a cat bite.

   As my husband and I reflected on things, we agreed that had we known the seriousness of a cat bite we never would have risked getting a cat as a pet.  We all know that pet bites aren't super common, but they happen.  We knew from the outset that our kids might get nipped at or scratched from a pet.  But we didn't realize that a cat bite could land you in the hospital, or worse could happen if left untreated.  And I found out from the shelter we went to that even cat scratches can land you in the hospital to be treated with IV antibiotics.  A scratch! (known as cat scratch fever)  However, a dog bite, especially a small or medium dog, is far less likely to be a serious injury.  The doctors confirmed that.

   The orthopedic doctor explained to us that one of the main reasons why cat bites are so serious is because their teeth are like sharp, little daggers and that when they puncture your skin, especially an appendage like the hand, their teeth and bacteria get all the way down into the innermost parts and can even puncture and deposit their bacteria into the tendons which can cause much more serious problems, including loss of function.  Often times surgeons have to perform small surgeries on the hand to drain the infection because it doesn't drain well by itself and the wound will fester until either drained or gets so bad that the hand needs to be amputated.

   And with any cat bite you run the risk of being exposed to rabies, which is always fatal to humans if not treated.  Thankfully the shelter had proof of a rabies vaccine being administered to the cat that bit our son but there are many cats that are carriers of rabies.

   Sooo, needless to say, we took that cat back the same night it bit our son.  The lady at the shelter said that unlike dogs, (once they bite you can never trust them again) a cat can bite once and never bite again.  I think her comment was a biased and unsound judgment and I am certainly not willing to risk my children or myself to any such thing based on her casual assumption.

   After this incident I really felt it my duty to publish our story to help prevent other families from experiencing similar incidents.  I know that cat lovers are still going to own cats and I hope to own a cat someday in the future when I don't have small children around. 

   Cat lovers may read my article and think such a thing will never happen to them.  They may think that it isn't a likely thing.  They may even think I'm a cat hater, which I'm not, but I certainly am mad at that cat!  The doctors in the hospital said they get patients in all the time with serious cat bites, and that is just one hospital in one town.  It would be interesting to know how many people spend time in hospitals because of cat bites and scratches.  I'm just grateful for our good health insurance or that dumb cat could have cost us a whole lot more than the $75 we paid for her!

Has anyone in your family had to go to the doctor to be treated for an infected CAT BITE?

   Like I said, I'm not a cat hater.  I know small children are hard on animals and it is not in a cats nature or species to be loyal to humans to the same extent that dogs are.  They are, for the most part, "leave-me-alone" kind of pets.  Feed them, give them a bed to sleep in, love them a little, but don't try to love them too much because, sadly, they may just end up biting you and breaking your heart in the meantime.  It's been a heartache for our family, but a small one that I know we can band together and get through just fine. 

   Live and learn.  Sometimes it works like that.  Or sometimes you can learn from others' mistakes.  I know that to anyone I hear that has a young family that is interested in adopting a cat, I would tell them to pick a different pet because cats don't make good pets for young families and it's only a matter of time before another child receives a serious bite from a cat and ends up in the hospital.  There are plenty of other good pet options and for us, the risk is just too great and a risk that can easily be avoided.

Updated: 02/01/2012, KayLaura
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Wournos on 06/24/2013

Something similar happened to me a little over a year ago. I took my cat to the veterinarian for a health check-up. She was closing in on 15 years of age and was not well at all. We were drawing blood for a test when my cat clearly had enough of everything and bit the base knuckle of my left index finger - HARD.

It took about 6 hours before I felt something was wrong. Red. Aching. Starting to swell. 10 hours after the incident I was seriously thinking of contacting the ER - and I'm not the person who runs to the doctor unless I really have to.

I didn't. Instead I waited until the morning after. It was horrible. Dark red. Finger and thumb the size of a chicken thigh. Red markings going up my arm. Aching to the point where I could barely take it.

To cut it short, I had to go through surgery to clean out the tendon in my index finger. If I hadn't I would have lost my ability to use the finger and possibly other fingers as the infection spread. I don't blame my cat at all for biting me. It was her way of letting me know that she had had enough. She passed away, with a little help, a few months later due to her age and health.

With that said, I don't believe in not loving your cat too much. If the owner bonds with their cat and learn their pattern and what they are all about, it should be fairly easy to avoid situations like these. If not then at least they would have a fair clue as to *why* the cat did what it did.

I do hope your child don't turn out to hate cats in the future due to this incident. It would be a shame.

Jess on 06/08/2013

I'll be honest, I'm getting "hater" vibes from the second-to-last paragraph with the claim of not being a cat hater. Granted, I understand your perspective after reading your story. However, I would add that not all cats are vicious in general or towards young children. I've been around cats since I was born. The first cat, my mom's cat from much earlier, was don't-touch-me. The cat we got when I was four was an absolute sweetheart-although she loved to lick and had a sandpapery tongue. The current girls are also sweethearts BUT have sharp fangs that all of us have encountered. If someone wanted to pair a young child and a cat, I would strongly recommend supervised meetings. Plus, I would note that all pets have inherent risks. To close, I do wish you better luck with your next cat.

[email protected] on 05/13/2012

My female cat, Molly, bit me a week and a half ago. I had to go in the hosp for 2 days for antibiotic I.V.s Then it stayed swelled up and the area became hard. I know it has to be drained, but I don't have anyone to drain it. That hosp is 11 miles away, adn I don't know the doctors there. My doctor is out of the country for 3 weeks.

TerriRexson on 01/06/2012

A very useful article. I have small children and it always makes me very nervous when we visit friends with pets, I avoid it whenever possible.

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