Cats can be ungracious creatures and even the gentlest cat may bite the hand that feeds him. The long, sharp teeth of a cat can deliver bacteria deep into the tissues and joints of your hand, where it can breed quickly to cause infection. A Mayo Clinic study shows that one in three people with cat bite wounds to the hand were hospitalized; two-thirds of those hospitalized needed hand surgery.
A cat’s teeth are longer and sharper than a dog’s teeth, so cat teeth penetrate deeper into the hand. The hand is made up primarily of bones, muscles and connective tissue, and very little protective muscle and fat, so cat bites can inflict a great amount of damage to the hand. Furthermore, a dog bite tends to leave a wide gash that can be cleaned easily whereas cat teeth puncture the skin, greatly increasing the risk for infection in the tendon sheaths and joints.
The bacteria in most cat bites contain strains that are particularly resistant to treatment with a home course of antibiotics, leading to the high hospitalization rates for patients suffering from cat bites to the hand. In the Mayo Clinic study, researchers looked at 193 such patients seen at that clinic between 2009 and 2011. Of those patients, 57 were hospitalized for an average of three days.
In the Mayo Clinic study, 38 of those hospitalized needed hand surgery. In some cases, a hand surgeon had to open the hand in order to irrigate, or wash out, the infected tissue lying deep within. Sometimes the hand surgery doctor had to remove infected tissue in a surgical procedure known as debridement. Eight of the 38 needed more than one operation. Some required reconstructive surgery.
The study shed an interesting light on cat bites and cat bite victims. The average age of victims was 49 and 69 percent were women. Patients suffering cat bites directly over the wrist or other joints in the hand were more likely to require hospitalization that those who experienced soft tissue injury.
The mean wait time between the cat bite incident and medical care was 27 hours – the average person in this study waited more than one day to seek care. Many people dismiss cat bites because the wound looks so small and insignificant at first, and only seek professional medical care after the wound becomes inflamed, swollen and painful. By this time, many antibiotics fail to curb the rampant growth of treatment-resistant bacteria, increasing the need for hand surgery.
If your cat bites the hand that feeds him, seek medical care right away if you think you have suffered a deep puncture wound. Early action may reduce your need for hospitalization and hand surgery.