FloridaWild Vet Hospital

Cat bites and scratches 101: An Educational Journey

The majority of cat lovers consider their kitties as mysterious, fascinating creatures. What prompts this opinion is not only the feline intelligence; it’s also their outrageous sense of humor and their unique personalities. What makes the feline/human relationship so powerfully compelling is the domestic house cat’s ability to unconditionally love their guardians.

Leo “The Lionheart” with Sherry, our Reiki Master Teacher

Although pet cats can be trusting, gentle and loving, others may be incredibly confident, bold and outgoing. Some kitties can also be timid and shy. By nature, felines can be extremely verbally and behaviorally communicative. Some cats may express affection for their guardian/s by giving them little “love” bites on their hands or feet. Granted there are guardians who enjoy receiving these nips, however, this behavior may also be warning their owner that they are feeling over-stimulated, very excited or anxious.

Remember that although some cats enjoy full body stroking there are cats who greatly prefer head and facial rubs to petting below the neck. A twitching tail, ears pinned down, whiskers pulled back or a hard stare are definite warning signs for owners to immediately give the cat space.

The majority of domestic house cats are usually amicable and even-tempered. At the same time situations can and do arise in which a cat may feel threatened and strike out and bite or scratch their guardian. Since it’s not in a cat’s nature to behave aggressively or willfully or even injure their owner on purpose; these behaviors are instinctively self-protective.

However, these defensive maneuvers are fairly uncommon because cats tend to avoid acting aggressive unless they are convinced that danger is at hand. Fortunately, most cats won’t attack without warning. Being fluent in feline body language will help guardians to avoid being injured.

Any serious Illness or a painful physical condition or being profoundly startled and frightened can increase a cat’s anxiety. When a cat is highly distressed, the cat’s owner or people with whom the cat is familiar may get scratched or bitten. Just by touching or placing a hand onto a painful area, or if the cat anticipates that the painful area will be touched, may cause a cat to suddenly lash out. When these conditions arise, even the most mild-mannered house cat can abruptly strike out; biting and/or scratching causing severe injury to its handler.

Being bitten or scratched by a cat is not only painful; these abrasions may also be severe. Scratches and bites can bleed and swell and these wounds can sting intensely. These abrasions can also carry a significant risk for infection. When cats bite their sharp canine teeth can easily puncture tender skin causing small deep lacerations. Bacterium in the cat’s saliva penetrates deeply into the tissue; injecting bacteria into the puncture wound.

Although cat bites can be extremely dangerous, deep scratch wounds are also hazardous. Cats have exceptionally sharp, curved nails that can cut deeply into the flesh, injecting bacteria into the wound. If you are bitten or severely scratched, immediately wash the wound under running water. To prevent further harm to tissue, avoid using strong disinfectants and gently scrub the wound to prevent infection. Apply direct pressure to the wound with an absorbent dressing or bandage.

To ensure that the bite or scratch is appropriately treated, it is highly advisable to see a physician as soon as possible after being injured by a cat. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to reduce the risk of an infection developing at the site of the bite, or elsewhere in the body. Some wounds may need to be sutured while others may be left open to heal correctly. Some physicians may also recommend a tetanus booster.

I can hardly think of anything more delightful and enthralling than living with our companion cats. By carefully observing and understanding feline behavior and their language, it’s easier to avoid being scratched or bitten. Handling felines in the way that suits their temperament and nature, and giving them the love and the attention they richly deserve will result in an extraordinary, deeply bonded relationship.

By Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, LCSW, (Ret.)

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