Cat bites and scratches to people require prompt medical attention

Posted on July 20, 2018 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.

Cats are very unique creatures.  Each has his or her own personality, and even that can vary depending on what’s going on around them.  Some cats are calm and laid-back no matter what the situation, but most cats prefer to be in their own environment with familiar surroundings, including people they know.  What happens when you take a cat out of that comfort zone?  They really just want to protect themselves.  But cat bites and scratches to people in their way can result, and sometimes the person in the way is the veterinarian!

Why do cats act up when they go to the vet?

Fluffles is a beautiful white medium-hair cat with black streaks on top of his head. At home with his family, he is happy and affectionate. But, coming to a veterinary clinic is not on the list of things he thinks he should be doing.

Being in feline practice, we think about the visit from the cat’s point of view. First, they have to get in a carrier. Then, they have to ride in a car. Finally, they come to a place where there are different people and different smells from home. Of course, no cat is wild about any of this except young kittens, who think that just about everything is wonderful!

How can we minimize risk of cat bites and scratches to people?

We don’t get upset with cats, because from their point of view, their reaction makes perfect sense. Their natural reaction to “danger” is to fight back.  We do everything we can to minimize stress: quiet voices, gentle handling, warm towels, Feliway ® calming pheromone sprayed on towels and our jackets. For cats who still aren’t convinced, we recommend giving a safe anti-anxiety prescription medication (gabapentin) prior to coming in.

For most cats, the above combination works, but Fluffles is one tough kitty. Even with anti-anxiety medication on board and expert handling by our technician Vicki, Fluffles managed to get a lightening-fast claw into my hand.

What to do if you do get a bite or scratch?

It bled a lot which alarmed our manager Ann, who applied a bandage to my hand.  Yet my first thought was “Oh good, if it’s bleeding, I won’t need antibiotics”. Wrong!  I was thinking that any bacteria would be flushed away with the bleeding, but apparently that isn’t always enough.

A bite wound creates a deep puncture, which always requires antibiotics (and a tetanus vaccination, if not current or as advised by your doctor). While fortunately getting bitten is uncommon, it does happen. When it happens here, we send staff straight to the local urgent care for treatment. But since this was “just a scratch”, I waited to see what happened. Unfortunately, by the end of the day my hand looked bruised, and I realized I did need to seek medical attention and antibiotics.

When does a wound from a cat bite or scratch to people need treatment? Anyone with a compromised immune system should seek treatment promptly. And even minor wounds from a cat’s teeth or claws should be washed well immediately. But any bite from a cat definitely requires medical treatment. And for a cat scratch or puncture, it is never wrong to get a wound checked by a doctor.

Discouraging play biting in kittens might help

There are certainly things you can do with young kittens to discourage developing a habit of biting people.  What’s cute for a 1 lb kitten is extremely painful when dealing with a 10-12 lb adult cat!  So it’s always a good idea to discourage play biting in kittens.  But if your adult cat still has times when he’s fearful and you get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, don’t wait to seek medical attention.

Cat bites and scratches to people require prompt medical careAlthough Fluffles may have won this round, he is still welcome in our clinic! But, his anti-anxiety medication dose will go up for his next visit…

Here is a photo of Fluffles as an adorable young kitten!

Follow up note: A year later, at 11 pounds and 150 mg of gabapentin (which is a record high dose for our clinic!), we were able to complete Fluffles’ exam. He was still growling but we were able to perform a physical exam and give him his rabies vaccination, quickly and with no injuries. Fortunately, his mom and dad (and everyone at A Cat Clinic) know this is just how Fluffles is when he’s out of the comfort of his own home!