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Cat Bites

Cat Bites

by Margaret Schill

Cat bites need to be considered seriously, for both humans and cats, since most cat bites become infected. The most common infection associated with cat bites is caused by a bacterium called Pasteurella, which normally resides in the nasal cavity, oral cavity, and tonsil region of cats. The canine (fang) teeth of cats are sharp and can cause deep punctures "injecting" bacteria, sometimes reaching into joints depending upon what body part was bitten. It is difficult to adequately clean puncture wounds to prevent infection from developing. Since they don't bleed much, bacteria is not flushed out naturally by the body. The skin closes over the wound somewhat soon, trapping bacteria. There can be serious consequences for both cats and humans if infected bites are not treated by a doctor.

Bite to Humans    Bites to Cats

Cat Bites Occuring to Cats

It can be difficult to notice a puncture wound on a cat to realize a cat has been bitten by another cat. Puncture wounds do not bleed much and the skin quickly heals over the puncture wounds. People can't easily see down to a cat's skin due to all the fur, so even if you suspect your cat may have been bitten by another cat, you might miss the small entry wounds. Sometimes only one or two of the teeth made the puncture, which can cause a person to not suspect a bite wound if only one very small hole is noticed, which can seem more like a bug bite. The cat will probably act as usual at first and you might not notice anything is wrong at all for a few days, by which time the infection has set in and has affected the cat.

A few days after the bite when the bacteria has multiplied, there is often a swelling under the skin, where pus has accumulated, being trapped by the wound having closed over. This is called an abscess. Touching the area will seem to hurt the cat, and the cat might even lash out at you if you you touch the wound area. By then, the cat will likely have a fever from the infection, have a loss of appetite, and be lethargic. If the abscess ruptured, you might notice a bad smell. Sometimes the abscess burrowed into the body tissue, so there is no outward bump. But, you should by then notice that the cat is not feeling and acting as usual, so will hopefully realize to take the cat to the veterinarian.

Signs of an infection and abscess (you might not notice all signs)

  • Lethargy
  • Poor or absent appetite
  • Visible puncture wounds
  • Swelling or lump on skin
  • Limping (if bitten on a leg)
  • Pain or resentment when picked up or touched
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Treatment for cats with bite wounds is for a vet to clean the wound to prevent further contamination, remove dead tissue as needed, and treating for infection with antibiotics.  The sooner that treatment is begun, the better the chances of the wound healing without complication. If a deep abcess has developed, the cat may need to be anesthetized so an incision can be made into the abscess to allow flushing of the wound with an antibacterial solution to remove pus and other debris. 

If a cat got into a fight, even with one of his housemates with whom you didn't think there would be a serious fight, the cats need to be checked carefully for a sign of a puncture wound. You might not notice one right after a cat fight, since the hole or holes will be very small and won't have bled much. The cat might act and seem as if all is well at first. If a few days later you feel a small bump and then find a small scab, that may be the entry to the wound. Do gently scratch off any small scab you can see or feel on your cat, especially if you know or suspect there was a fight with another cat.

Our cat Galen had a very small scab and when I scratched it off while scratching his lower back, pus oozed out! We had heard a commotion between Galen and one of our other cats, Snookums, two or three days earlier, but didn't think they had bitten each other. Well, they had. If I hadn't picked at Galen's scab, his infection underneath would have developed into an abcess.

Treatment for Galen was simple since it was begun before the bacteria built up too much. He had an injection of Convenia, an antibiotic for cats (and dogs) for wound abscesses that provides 14 days worth of antibiotic treatment in just one injectable dose. Since the scab was off, the pus was able to drain out.

We didn't realize Snookums had a problem until many days later, when we realized she had lost weight and seemed lethargic. We took her to the vet where it was found that she had a fever and an abscess from the bite wound we did not realize she had had. Snookum's abscess developed deep into her body tissue, so she didn't have a lump on her body under her skin. Snookums required surgery to clean out the wound, needed drainage tubes and of course, antibiotics. The image at the right is Snookums with the drainage tubes. Fortunately, she left them alone. However, if necessary, an e-collar would have been used to keep her from pulling at the tubes.

Bacterial infections and abscesses are not the only concern with a cat having been bitten by another cat. Cats in contact with stray cats outdoors are at risk for contracting serious illnesses, such as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immundeficiency Virus (FIV) from bites acquired in fights. Rabies is also a possible concern, though rabies is not very common in cats. If you do chose to allow your cat outdoors, be sure to keep up with vaccines for Feline Leukemia and rabies. There is a vaccine for some of the strains of FIV, but it has some drawbacks and is contoversial.

For more information about cat bites and abcesses, see:

Elizabethan collars (e-collars) keep cats from bothering wounds. Chose one that is clear, so as to not interfere with the cat's peripheral vision.

Treatment of Cat Bites for Humans

If the bite barely breaks the skin and is really more of a scratch by the teeth, such as would occur if you quickly pulled your hand away just before the cat was able to sink his teeth in, treat it as a minor wound such as you would any scratch. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment or rinse with Betadine Solution or Bactine solution to prevent infection, and cover the bite with a clean bandage. Do keep an eye on the wound to note any signs of developing infection.

Signs of infection are:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Heat
  • Weeping pus

Cat bite on hand with signs of infection.

Puncture Bites Wounds:

If a person is bitten by a cat where the skin has been punctured, wash the wound throughly with soap and water for five minutes under running water. You want to flush out as much of the bacteria as possible. Then cover the wound with sterile gauze, or bandaids, if you don't have gauze.

Do NOT use antibacterial lotion, ointment, or cream on an animal bite that has resulted in puncture wounds; the bacteria in the wound can proliferate in the ointment! You can flush the punctures with an antiseptic liquid, such as Betadine Solution or Bactine solution.

Most cat bite wounds need antibiotics promptly. If an infection has had a few days to set in before you go to a doctor, it could result in some very serious complications requiring far more extensive and costly treatment.

You should see a doctor the same day. Go to the emergency room if you are unable to see your regular doctor within a few hours after the bite. Cat bites can develop infection quickly, 2 to 12 hours after the bite, even if you did throughly wash the wound. Bites to the hand are potentially dangerous because there is less blood circulation in the hand due to the many bones, joints and tendons in the hand . Less blood circulation makes it harder for the body to fight infection in the hand. Infections that develop in the hand may lead to severe complications. If pasteurellosis develops in the tissues of the hand, the bacteria can infect tendons or even bones. Sometimes permanent damage can result if appropriate medical care is not administered. So, do not hestitate to seek medical attention after getting a cat bite.

If your last tetanus shot was more than five years ago, it is usually recommend to have a booster shot after a cat bite.

People sometimes are reluctant to go to a doctor after their pet cat has bitten then, for fear that their cat will be taken and possible killed to have it's brain examined for rabies (which is the only "test" for rabies). That does not happen with pet cats, and certainly not pet cats where there was no contact with a rabid animal, and when the cats have a current rabies vaccine. The risk of getting rabies from a cat is fairly low, actually. Cats can be put on "rabies watch" for 10 days, where they are contained in an area and watched for signs of rabies. Cats show signs of rabies in about 7 days after contracting it. If there are no signs of rabies after 10 days, the cat does not have rabies. For more information about rabies see our article at:


Cats Bites Need Medical Attention

The above picture shows a cat bite on a hand that later became infected. This person tried to prevent a cat fight with his bare hand. (Don't use your bare hands to stop cat fights!)

Cat bites need to be treated by a doctor, and antibiotics are needed, since most cat bites get infected.

If a cat gets bitten by another cat, the cat that got bitten needs to see a doctor soon, just as is the case with humans. The cat will need antibiotics.

If cat bites are left untreated, infection will develop in most cases and can have serious consequences for both cats and humans.

Help for Biting Cats

For help with pet cats that bite in rough play or due to overstimulation, see our article on Biting Cats.