It’s been about twelve hours since she was bitten. Dr. E lies in the back of a van, slowly waking to the thick, incessant throbbing in her right arm. Her body is prickly with chills and beaded with sweat. Using her left arm to push herself up, she attempts to straighten her right one, only it doesn’t extend. She tries to pull it closer to her, bending at the elbow, only it won’t bend. Weakly, she says, “Guys, I think I need to go to the hospital.”
Twelve hours earlier, a fluffy, yellow domesticated “inside” cat sunk his teeth into her arm. What seemed like a treatable wound turned into an infection caused by the bacteria in the cat’s mouth, as well as the possibility of a harmful bacterium that lives on human skin. The combination, if left untreated, could have been lethal.
The media hypes up dog bites (part of the reason many dogs are euthanized every year) particularly if the dog happens to be a certain breed. Dog bites are frightening to behold; sometimes, the sheer power of a dog’s jaws can crush bone. However, not nearly as much attention is given to cat bites even though only 3 to 18% of dog bites become infected, compared to 80% of cat bites. The reason cat bites are so serious is due to the shape and size of their teeth: thin and extremely sharp, they can sink into the bone. Luckily, Dr. E knew how to handle her cat bite. Knowing the owners of the cat and that the cat was an indoor, healthy cat helped to calm her anxieties when her arm began to swell and stiffen. Dr. E had taken some oral antibiotics, but when the symptoms did not lessen and she began to develop fever and chills, she rushed to the hospital. Only a week’s worth of intravenous antibiotics and pain-killers cured the infection and eased the pain. Dr. E was diagnosed as having a polymicrobial cellulitis with underlying myositis of the right forearm with likely MRSA involvement. What?
The best recipe for an infection is the animal’s oral flora mixed with human skin flora. Through a bite or scratch, an animal disease can be transmitted to a human (called a zoonosis), such as cat scratch disease, a name familiar to most of us. One of the most common zoonoses transmitted by cats is pasteurella multocida. It can cause severe soft tissue infections, namely cellulitis and oral and respiratory infections. Dr. E’s first diagnosis, cellulitis, is an inflammatory skin infection that often has the appearance of a sunburn, initially. When a cat’s bite goes deep enough, it can cause an infection of the tissues found closer to the bone, which is what Dr. E’s second diagnosis was: myositis, an inflammation of the skeletal muscles. The third presumptive diagnosis Dr. E received was MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which is a common type of bacteria that one out of every four people have living on their skin. When Dr. E didn’t respond to the oral antibiotics at first, it became probable that she had even the smallest amount of MRSA napping on her arm.
What should you do if you are bitten by a cat? Immediately clean the wound with peroxide or alcohol. Don’t just dab the open wound with a cotton ball soaked in peroxide; pour that burning, bubbling solution over the wound and watch it foam. After it is washed and dried, put some first-aid ointment on it and bandage it up with Band-Aids or gauze. Take some ibuprofen to reduce inflammation. For the next six or more hours, pay close attention to how you are feeling. At any sign of infection near the bite— including redness, swelling or increasing pain or tenderness at the site—or the onset of chills, fever or feeling generally ill, seek medical attention. If the area near the bite wound loses mobility, seek medical attention (i.e. if you were bitten on the arm and cannot fully straighten or bend it, then go to the hospital). And as a general rule of thumb, make sure you are up to date with your tetanus immunization as well.
If you go to the hospital for a cat bite (or any animal bite), the hospital is generally required to ask you a series of questions about the animal that bit you and report it to the local animal control center, mostly regarding the possibility of rabies. Typically, the animal control center then must contact the victim and request that they file a bite report. If the animal that bit you is a friend’s (or your own!) then you may not want to file a bite report. If you know the animal is up to date on its vaccinations, then you may choose to keep this off the record. If you do file a bite report, remember that if animal control deems the animal a threat to society, then the animal can be quarantined (either in your home if it’s yours, with proof of vaccinations; or at the center, where the cat will be vaccinated for rabies and kept for a number of days until proven safe and healthy).
The moral of the story: if an infection ensues after being bitten by a cat, it’s better to go to the hospital than to try and let your body fight it off. An infection can quickly taint healthy blood and some worst-case scenarios could be invasive surgery to remove abscesses, the loss of a limb when infection has become untreatable or, in rare cases, death. Cats are known for their svelte, sneaky and introverted ways—and their bites validate their renowned hallmark for deviousness. Some ascribe this to a high form of intelligence, while others will always brand cats as the devil’s little helpers.