How Do You Know if a Cat Bite is Infected?
Questions About Cats

How Do You Know if a Cat Bite is Infected?

Intense pain, redness, and inflammation are the common symptoms of a cat bite infection. Being bitten by a cat can be serious and should be regarded as such, but never take any chances with potentially infected bites. They will typically worsen if not treated promptly.

A penetrating cat bite can result in bacteria entering the body. Once it settles deep within tissue, it can spread quickly and cause many unpleasant symptoms. In severe cases, the bite can introduce disease and require extensive medical treatment.

Just because you do not see external damage to the skin does not mean there is no cause for concern. Infections are due to bacteria entering the body rather than the more obvious signs of torn flesh and blood loss.

In this guide, we will look closely at the symptoms of infection from a cat bite and how to treat the wounds. We will then address the complications that can arise from being bitten by a cat.

When is a Cat Bite Serious?

All cat bites are ‘potentially’ dangerous. Just because the wound itself may not look that bad does not mean that it should be dismissed or neglected. Even the most visually minor of bites can lead to a severe infection if not dealt with correctly.

Generally speaking, bites are a problem because a cat’s canine teeth can puncture the skin. While these wounds are often small, they are deep and penetrating, allowing an easy means of entrance for germs and bacteria. Owners often find that cats bite them unexpectedly.

how long after a cat bite does infection set in?

The wounds that are caused often seal quickly, so the bacteria from a cat’s mouth and teeth become trapped under the skin. It can spread to tissues surrounding the location of the bite and lead to cellulitis. The symptoms of cellulitis include intense pain and swelling.

What is Pasteurella Multocida?

Classified as a bacterium, Pasteurella Multocida is the primary cause of infection following being bitten or scratched by a cat. The rapid development of cellulitis is often the result of Pasteurella Multocida. Infections can enter the blood and cause septicemia or blood poisoning.

The symptoms of cellulitis typically commence within 24 hours. Swelling, redness, warmth at the location of the bite and tenderness of the skin are typically the initial symptoms. Discharge (pus) at the location of the bite may also occur.

As the bacteria progresses through various tissues, swelling of the lymph nodes and chills and fever can occur.

Pasteurella multocida can introduce the following complications…

  • Joint pain and infection
  • Bone infection
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Eye Infections
  • Meningitis

Many of the (above) complications are rare. But, if a cat’s mouth and teeth are infected with Pasteurella Multocida, it can potentially lead to one or more of these symptoms and complications.

How to Tell if a Cat Bite is Infected?

Monitor the wound and pay close attention to the specific signs and symptoms. While many bites are minor and mere flesh wounds that will heal in time, infected wounds usually get worse before they show any signs of getting better.

If you have ever been bitten by a cat before (and it came to nothing), then you will be familiar with the ‘normal’ healing process. Any wound that is a stark departure from what you recall could mean that infection has set it.

Cat Bite Infection Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms are the pain, redness, swelling, and severe inflammation.

Additional issues may include…

  • Pus and fluid draining from the wound
  • Loss of sensation in the area near the bite
  • Extreme tenderness at the bite location
  • Inability to use the part of the body that was bitten
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes near the bite location
  • Red streaks on the flesh near the bitten area
  • Fever
  • Chills (uncontrollable shaking)
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Muscle weakness and spasms
cat bite bacteria pasteurella

An infection can manifest itself in ways that go far beyond the bite itself. This is a red flag in its own right. Whereas most flesh wounds only affect the location of the injury, bites that are infected can cause illness and flu-like symptoms.

If you become sick within 24 hours of a cat bite, there is a strong chance that you have an infection.

How Do You Treat an Infected Cat Bite?

The attention and treatment required for a cat bite often depend on the extent of the bite itself. While even the smallest of bites can result in infection, initial treatment is based on the immediate damage done to the skin and whether professional attention is warranted.

Being proactive is the best way to prevent infection. While you are not always going to be able to avoid a bite, you can be proactive in your response. The difference between a common flesh wound and an infection could take a matter of minutes. The sooner you apply antibacterial soap and warm water to the bite the faster you can rid bacteria from the open wound.

Home Treatments

The first step is to clean the wound and assess any skin damage that has occurred.

This is a quick guide to assessing the extent of any damage:

  • Wash the area several times with soap and water. This will remove any blood that has come to the surface as well as cleansing the area of bacteria. Cat bite infections are often rooted under the skin and deep within tissue.
  • Cover the area with a fresh and sanitary bandage. This will prevent airborne bacteria from entering your open wound.
  • Once you have medicated and dressed the wound, you should monitor the area for changes. Even though your wound may not be extensive, severe swelling, tenderness, redness, and increased pain may begin to occur. If your situation starts to get worse over the next 24 hours, you should consult a doctor immediately.

Expert Medical Care

Wounds that are deep and penetrating require emergency medical care. In many cases, a quick visual will alert you if the injury is extensive. Logically speaking, the more penetrating and expansive the wound, the more likely you are to have an infection in the area.

If you have sustained a severe bite from a cat, you are encouraged to take the following measures:

  • Apply immediate pressure to the wound with a clean cloth. Puncture wounds can lead to extensive blood loss quickly if they occur on the face, neck or arm.
  • Clean the wound with soap and water. This will cleanse the area and rid it of bacteria while also controlling the bleeding.
  • Secure the wound with a bandage and go to your local doctor’s office for an evaluation.

If an infection develops, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, such as prophylaxis. The length of treatment depends on several factors. The severity of the bite and your preexisting health issues can play a significant role. If you already have a weakened immune system, you may need an additional course of antibiotics (clavulanate) to fight the infection.

Further treatment for a bite wound is a tetanus shot. Because tetanus often thrives in deep puncture wounds, it would be critical to check your vaccination status. You should get a tetanus shot once every decade regardless of your current health.

If the bite has caused extensive damage, some stitching may be required. In most cases, this is the last measure in the short term due to the need to clean the area and flush out any bacteria. Premature stitching can trap bacteria, thus sealing bacteria below the surface of your skin.

Why are Cat Bites to the Hand Serious?

The Journal of Hand Surgery conducted research on the significance of cat bites to the hands. Within the study, it was detailed that a third of all cat bite victims who sustained trauma to their hands and sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic had to be hospitalized. It was also noted that two-thirds required surgery to remove bacteria from the bite location and tissue that had become infected.

The study noted that bites to the hands are more severe than many other areas of the body due to the number of joints, tendons, and complexity of that part of the body. To make matters worse, an estimated 85% of all cat bites occur to either the hand or the wrist. This makes them the most commonly bitten areas as well as the most difficult to treat.

when to see a doctor for a cat bite

Once bacteria enter the hand, it can travel to various joints and tendons. When this occurs, the situation requires emergency attention. This issue becomes even more critical for people with an immune deficiency.

Because antibiotics are often unable to reach joints and tendons, surgery is often required to remove any bacteria. If treatment is delayed, there is a possibility of permanent damage and the loss of hand or wrist function.

  • 2% of all emergency room visits in the United States are due to animal bites. An estimated 15% of those bites involve cats.

How Long Does It Take a Cat Bite to Heal?

With the proper treatment, a cat bite should begin to heal within 48-72 hours. You should start to notice visual improvements to the bitten area and reduced pain and swelling. If you do not notice changes or if the area becomes worse you should seek treatment immediately.

Extreme trauma requires professional care from the onset due to the skin damage alone. If you require professional treatment, schedule a follow-up appointment with your physician. Your doctor can look for signs of infection and make sure the wound is healing properly.

Cat Bite Infection Complications

The majority of cat bite complications center around disease and bacterial infection. Concerns such as cat scratch disease, cellulitis, and rabies are the primary sources of concern.

Additional complications center around the failure of a bite wound to heal properly. Prolonged infections for people with compromised immune systems are the most difficult to manage.

Another complication is non- treatment moments after a bite. Not treating the symptoms can lead to significant medical issues in the future.

Dismissing a bite based on a quick visual (that does not look “that bad”) can be costly. Never dismiss or ignore a cat bite because the flesh is not severely torn and blood loss is not profuse.

swelling and blood due to a cat bite

Noted below are ways to avoid potential complications…

  • Leave the wound alone. Unless you are changing your dressing or applying medication, do not touch your wound. Touching and picking at the skin can cause irritation that can delay healing.
  • Never allow your cat to touch or lick an existing wound. If your cat has bitten you, it is vital that you shield that area from your cat. Something as simple as your cat touching your wound with its paw could complicate the healing process.
  • Never allow an open wound to be exposed to the air. If you have sustained a deep bite, it should remain covered. Once the skin has been compromised, it is like an open gate to infection. Particles can invade the area and cause an infection that may be unrelated to the bite itself. All open wounds should be covered until they are closed and healed.
  • Keep your immune system strong. While this aspect of healing is mostly overlooked, it is essential to take care of your body. Antibiotics can only do so much if your natural immune health is poor. If you have a minor illness, your bite wound may stop healing.
  • Continue treatment until the cycle has ended. If you are taking prescription medication, it is essential that you finish it. Do not stop because your wound is looking and feeling better.

How to Prevent a Cat Bite

One of the easiest ways to prevent a cat bite is to never go near a cat that you do not know. This goes for feral cats as well as the cat next door. If you do not know the cat, you should keep a healthy distance away. Just because a cat is nice and well taken care of does not mean it is eager to be petted by a complete stranger.

Another way to prevent a bite is to play nicely with your cat. Never act aggressively when your cat is near you, especially if you are holding your cat. Never grab your cat. Never force your cat to stay on the sofa, on a chair, in your arms, etc. Physically forcing your cat to remain still or to entertain you is another form of aggression.

If your cat wants to get down from the sofa, it is critical that you allow it to do just that. Unless your cat is damaging your property or engaging in bad behavior, you should let your cat call the shots. Attempting to stop your cat from doing something can end with a nasty bite to your hand or arm.

  • All cats love to play, and most love the attention of their owners. However, you should never force these behaviors and actions. Many bites and scratches come on the heels of well-meaning actions gone sour. Never put yourself in that position if you can avoid it.

All cat bites are severe and need to be treated as such. Be proactive because the risk of infection is far too high. The mouth of a cat is coated with bacteria, so a bite (or scratch) should never be dismissed based on a quick visual inspection.

Learning how to properly make a fuss of your cat and play without engaging in aggression is recommended. While there will never be a foolproof way to avoid being bitten, but you can reduce the risk of it happening considerably.