Don’t trivialize animal bites

Animal bites, especially cat bites, can be serious.

When I was a kid, my sister, brothers and I spent our summers outside playing with all kinds of critters, from box turtles and salamanders to dogs, cats and horses. We never kept the “wild things” — we’d look them over and let them go. But our dogs and cats were our dress-up friends and snuggle buddies. We’d take them for rides in our red wagon or doll buggy. They didn’t necessarily enjoy playing along — my siblings and I got clawed, scratched and bitten when our furry four-legged friends got tired of being the center of attention. Mom would clean our wounds, apply antiseptic, and if we were lucky, we’d get a Flintstone Band-Aid.

Today, I realize the truly lucky part is that we never developed any serious complications from animal bites.

Nearly 70 million dogs and 74 million cats are kept as pets in the United States, according to the 2012 edition of the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 5 million dog bites annually, with 800,000 of those requiring medical attention. But the CDC also says many more cases are never reported. We hear about really bad dog attacks, but rarely about playful nips or protective snaps. There are far fewer cat bites, but research tells us those are the ones more likely to cause trouble.

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand said only 1 percent of dog bites end with the victim in the hospital, while 5 to 10 percent of those being treated for a cat bite will be hospitalized. And a study between 2009 and 2011 by a group of physicians at the Mayo Clinic found that for every three people who came to them for treatment of a cat bite, one would need to be hospitalized. 

So why do cat bites have a bigger infection risk? Experts offer a couple of explanations. First, dogs and cats have all kinds of bacteria in their saliva. The Mayo Clinic study found that about 25 percent of dog bites contain Pasteurella multocida and may contain other types of bacteria. About 50 to 75 percent of cat bites contain P. multocida. Named for discoverer Louis Pasteur, P. multocida causes a range of diseases in mammals and birds, and it can cause serious infections when transmitted to humans.

Another reason cats present a greater infection risk is their needlelike teeth, which doctors say can push bacteria deep into the skin. A cat bite’s small puncture wounds, especially on the hands near joints, are much deeper, harder to get to and harder to clean than bites from a dog.

So what’s the message about animal bites, and cat bites in particular? First, don’t ignore them. One of the researchers in the Mayo Clinic study said people tend to ignore cat bites because they are so small. Brian Carlsen, an orthopedic surgeon, warns, "The bites lead to serious infections that can require multiple hospitalizations, antibiotics and sometimes surgery." In fact, of the 193 patients in the Mayo Clinic study, two-thirds of those hospitalized for cat bites needed surgery to clean out infected tissue.

After cleaning and disinfecting the wound, the second thing to remember is to watch for signs of infection. If redness or swelling appears around the bite, see your doctor immediately. Your physician will want to know if you’ve had a tetanus shot, when you were bitten and whether the animal has been vaccinated against rabies. You will also need to provide your medical history, such as whether or not you have a suppressed immune system. Most of the time, just taking an antibiotic will clear up the infection, but not always. In the Mayo Clinic study, 21 of the 193 patients seen required further treatment.

So after reading all this, would I give up my dogs or ban my daughter’s cats? No, but I will show them new respect to avoid being bitten, and make sure that even playful nibbling is not allowed. If, however, I still get any kind of bite or puncture wound, I know to clean it carefully, watch it for signs of infection and see a physician if necessary.