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Cat bites, infection risk 'are no joke'

Half of injuries can become infected due to bacteria levels

Deseret Morning News graphic

Dr. David Maloney has seen firsthand that a cat's bite is a lot worse than its hiss.

A veterinarian Maloney worked with locally was out for three months after a feline bit his knuckle, forcing the vet to undergo several operations. And while he was in vet school at Kansas State University, an injured cat sent two students and one intern to the hospital with bad bites after they tried to administer pain medication.

"I know of several other people who have needed to be hospitalized and received IV antibiotics after getting a cat bite," said the staff veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab. "Cat bites are no joke. I would strongly urge anyone who receives a cat bite to seek professional human medical attention quickly."

Every year, 3 million to 5 million Americans are bitten by animals. Cat bites account for 5-15 percent of the total animal bites. Although dog bites are a significant amount of the total injuries (approximately 80-90 percent), roughly half of all cat-bite wounds become infected and require medical assistance.

"Cats have a high population of bacterial pathogens in their mouths, including Prevotella species, Actinomyces and Streptococcal species," Maloney said. "They also have a very effective delivery system: sharp teeth. Getting bit by a cat is like getting an injection, but of bacteria."

Cats' pointy teeth not only inflict painful bites but often inject bacteria into the bloodstream. And the puncture wounds are so small they are likely to seal up quickly.

"People have to be concerned about the risks of a cat bite. The idea that cats don't bite is a myth," said Dr. Richard H. Polsky, a certified applied animal behaviorist based out of Los Angeles.

Polsky also shares numerous dangerous cat-bite stories like Maloney's, in which people have been badly injured by a cat's canine teeth. But as an animal behavior expert, Polsky sees some of these cases go to court, where he provides his expert testimony.

"Although it's not as massive and visible as many dog maulings, they're very serious," he said, adding that cat bites are not discussed as readily as they should be. "Potentially, they're very dangerous. I've seen people in the hospital, close to fatality."

In 2004, 133 cat bites and one kitten bite were reported in the area covered by Salt Lake County Animal Services, which includes unincorporated Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Taylorsville and Herriman. However, according to Temma Martin, spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Animal Services, many more of these bites go unreported. Law states that animal bites must be reported to animal services, to establish a record of the animal's behavior and for the safety of the victim.

"In a lot of ways, they're (cats) a lot more difficult to handle when they're upset than a dog because their claws are sharp, their teeth are sharp and they're unpredictable," Martin said. "Your cute little pet could turn into a monster very quickly."

Cats do have impressive weapons: four sets of claws.

According to the Humane Society, cats are difficult to understand because they can be friendly and content one minute, then may bite and scratch the next. They list five types of aggression that explain why a cat may bite or scratch: play, "don't pet me anymore," fearful/defensive, redirected and territorial aggression.

However, Dr. Kanda S. Hazelwood, veterinarian at Mountain View Animal Hospital and a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, said she rarely hears about or even sees cat bites. That type of aggression is usually found in dogs, she said.

At the very onset of animal aggression, Hazelwood recommends that pet owners talk to their veterinarian to resolve the problem before it becomes bigger.

"If there is any behavior problems, sometimes animals are taken to the shelter and they end up going from home to home," she said. "Address behavior issues sooner than later. I think that too many people feel that it's hopeless and they'll just take it to the shelter because they can't have the pet have the behavior problem in their home. If they spend some time and effort, the pet could be a happy member of the family."

While the majority of cat bites do not go to trial, Polsky said, cats' strong predatory tendencies and unpredictable nature pose potential dangers. To prevent getting bitten, he said: "Take heed to the warning signs a cat gives you."

Do not approach or interact with an unfamiliar cat, particularly stray or wild. Maloney said if any animals exhibit "classic warning signs," like flattening their ears, hissing, growling, tail twitching or moving, or turning their head toward your hand, "take that warning seriously." Never antagonize or tease an animal, he said.

Martin said getting a cat spayed or neutered will help avoid unwarranted attacks. Cats are three times more likely to bite when they're not fixed, because of their hormonal aggression, she said.

Owners properly caring for their cat and making sure it is well socialized with humans will also help a cat's aggression. Last year, Martin said, more than 5,000 cats and kittens were retrieved by animal services, but only about 4 percent were reclaimed by their owners. This Thanksgiving weekend also showed frightening statistics. One hundred cats in four days were retrieved by Salt Lake County Animal Services, 41 of those the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

"If more people treated their cat as part of their family, that would cut down on the number of cats euthanized in shelters and cut down on the number of bites," Martin said.