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Hospitalized for a Cat Bite?!

Updated on March 29, 2017
Victor Dorn profile image

I'm a cat lover with two rescue cats at home. I volunteer with a catch-neuter-release program, and I do lots of work with shelters.

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I'm a Cat Lover

I feel the need to say, first and foremost, that I am a cat lover. I currently volunteer with a catch-neuter-release program, I do lots of work with shelters, and I have two rescue cats of my own. However, I recognize that cats, domestic or not, are animals—and they have animal instincts. I therefore do not blame the cat that bit me one iota.

I also need to point out that I am not a medical professional in any capacity. This article is about my own personal experience, and I've also incorporated the results of some internet perusing. If you are concerned about any injury you have, please see a doctor.

How It Happened

This happened at a friend's house. I was looking after her toddler while she got some chores done without the distraction of her kid hanging off her leg all day. It was the first time I had been over to her house, and the first time I had met her two cats.

They seemed a little aloof, and I knew better than to bug them too much, so I let them be. After I had been there a while, while sitting on the floor with my charge, playing with some toys and looking at books, one of the cats came over and started rubbing up against me, purring like mad.

I'm helpless when it comes to this behaviour, and I happily started petting him. He did that cute little half-roll thing cats do when they fall onto their backs and wiggle their bellies at you, so, without thinking, I start giving this little guy some belly rubs. He seemed to love it, rolling and purring, so I just kept my hand there without paying much attention. I was looking away, at the toddler I was looking after, when suddenly I felt the unmistakable feeling of teeth against, then under, the skin on my left hand. I knew better than to yank my hand away, so I waited calmly until the cat let go.

I don't think he was really trying to be aggressive. My own cat does a similar thing; when he gets overstimulated or excited, he suddenly just latches on to you for dear life. Three of his teeth did not break the skin at all, which further makes me think he wasn't trying to hurt me much, but due to the angle of my hand (and the incredible design of cat teeth!), one of the teeth punctured deeply into my hand, in the soft part between my first finger and my thumb.

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My First Mistake

Now, here's the first thing I did wrong. I didn't wash the wound right away. I looked down at my hand and could see how deep the tooth had punctured. It was a strange thing to see, actually! It didn't start bleeding right away, and I could see pretty far down into my hand. Trippy! Anyway, like I said, I didn't wash the wound out right away (although, due to the nature of cat bites, this likely wouldn't have helped much). I was still busy looking after my friend's child, and my pride had been a little hurt, so I didn't tell my friend about it.

I've had many cat scratches and nips in my life, but this was more painful than any before. And, what was worrying was that the pain was getting worse with time, not better. When I got home, about three hours after the bite had happened, the puncture wound had completely swollen shut, which made washing it kind of pointless. Either way, I washed my hand in warm soapy water, then soaked it in a warm saltwater solution. Afterwards, I applied Polysporin and put a band-aid on.

Later That Night...

Unfortunately my at-home treatment had little to no effect. As I said, the wound had completely swollen shut so there was plenty of bacteria still there beneath the surface, pushed deep into the tissue by the shape of the cat's tooth. As the night progressed, the area around the main puncture wound got progressively more swollen and red, and by about 10-12 hours after the initial bite, it was very painful to move my thumb, finger, and hand in general. Luckily it was not my dominant hand!

At this point I started my Google spiral into panic. Everything I read told me that cat bites, especially to the hand, are notorious for infection and, due to the structure of the hand, the infection can spread incredibly quickly and start doing really serious tissue and nerve damage. Now, I'm an anxious hypochondriac to begin with, so this did not help my current state! I went into the bathroom, removed the band-aid, and was dismayed to already see some pus leaking from the wound. Yikes.

By this time it was past midnight, and I decided to wait until the morning to see how my hand looked. At this point, though, I knew I'd probably need antibiotics.

Signs of Infection

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Pus or drainage
  • Area is warm to the touch
  • Fever and nausea

Tingling in My Finger

The next day my hand was more swollen and red around the wound, but the pain felt slightly (just slightly) less. I had an event that afternoon/evening, and I really wanted to put off going to see a doctor until afterwards if I could. However, during dinner at the event, I started to notice that I was experiencing some tingling in the finger closest to the wound. It was similar to the beginnings of the feeling of a limb falling asleep, but it didn't go away no matter how much I moved and shook my hand. The stuff I had read about nerve damage came back with a vengeance, so I decided that when the event was over (around 9:30 p.m.) I would head straight to the ER.

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At the ER

When I got to the ER, the nurse who registered me told me it was good that I came in. "Most people with cat bites end up on a drip," she said, which was not good news to me. I hate needles, and was hoping to walk out with a prescription for oral antibiotics. Alas, it was not to be!

I waited for a few hours - something that really does not bother me. I know that there were people with much more serious conditions there than I, plus, since I'm in Canada, the trip to the ER and ALL the subsequent treatment was absolutely free. The only thing I paid for was the oral antibiotic prescription later, and even that was only four dollars. So, I can wait a few hours to see a doctor, no sweat.

When it was my turn a nurse came to see me to insert an IV port and to take some blood. The doctor, she told me, wanted blood work and an xray done, and then they would put me on IV antibiotics. No fun, but necessary. I got the blood work done and the xray, and then had the IV put in and I laid there until the IV had completely emptied into my veins.

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I Was Sent Home With an IV Port in My Arm

After the IV was removed, the doctor came to examine me. He asked me about the status of my tetanus shot (luckily I'd just had one a few months ago) and the cat's health (he's an indoor cat who is healthy and up to date with his shots). The doctor decided to send me home in a hand splint. Apparently the more you move the injured area (in my case, my hand) the worse the inflammation gets and the faster the infection spreads. They also decided to send me home with the IV port in my arm, something I really detested. I had to come back to the ER in 24 hours they said (so, about 2:00 the next morning), and, since I have terrible veins (it took two nurses multiple tries on both arms to get the needle in), they decided to wrap my arm and leave it in. Of the whole ordeal, this was the most uncomfortable and painful part! I couldn't bend my arm (the IV port was in my elbow) and sleeping was very awkward.

The next morning, my hand was markedly better. It was still swollen but nearly as much as before, and the pain had reduced greatly. Eventually, though, I had to remove the hand splint. I had to drive myself back to the hospital, and between the splint and the IV port I couldn't really do anything with my arms.

Back at the ER

The next night I walked into the ER around 1:00 a.m. This time there was no wait. For one, there seemed to be no other patients there at that time, and secondly, since they had told me to come back, I didn't have to go through all the processing again.

Within 15 minutes they had unwrapped the IV port and hooked me up to another antibiotic IV. Another doctor came to examine me, and he was very pleased with how my hand looked - so was I. It really was already so much better. The doctor wrote me a prescription for 7 days' worth of oral antibiotics to continue taking, and gave me a stern warning that if my hand began to swell again, I had to return to the ER asap.

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The Moral of the Story

It has now been almost one week since the initial cat bite, and my hand is just about completely back to normal. I still have a few more doses of the oral antibiotic to take (of course, you ALWAYS need to finish out your antibiotic regimen to prevent recurring infection and even possible resistance.) Apart from some unfortunate digestive side effects from the strong medication, I am feeling back to my normal healthy self (and I've been eating loads of yogurt, kimchi, and I've been taking probiotics.)

So, the moral of the story? Take caution around cats you don't know - they're generally friendly creatures but they can be wary of strangers and that isn't their fault! Also, take cat bites seriously. The possibility for serious infection is pretty huge, especially when it comes to your hands. The shape of cats' teeth pushes bacteria from their mouths and from the surface of your skin deep into the tissue which makes infection almost inevitable.

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    • Victor Dorn profile image
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      V Ron Dorn 7 months ago from Canada

      MizBejabbers,

      Oh man, I'm sorry you went through something similar! Sounds like you were even worse-off than me. While I definitely should have tried to clean it right away, you're right - puncture wounds, especially from cat bites, are almost impossible to clean properly (the doctor at the ER even told me this). Like you, mine didn't bleed much, either, so I know all that bacteria got pushed straight down by the tooth and got stuck in there. While I was falling into the hypochondriac google Hell-hole I came across the statistic that something like 80% of cat bites get infected due to the fact that they are so hard to clean! Anyway, I'm glad you got care soon enough and that you're on the mend - such a small thing but it can take so much out of you!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 7 months ago

      You are really lucky. I hate to read about something like this happening to anyone else because I went through a cat bite in January and it wasn't fun. My juvenile black cat (with more energy than a pent up slinky) and I were playing when he clamped down on the outside of my dominant hand with his teeth. Just playing rough, he was. I immediately cleansed and doctored the wound, but I couldn't get the wound to bleed. The next morning I thought I was going into shock. Shivering, I drove myself to the doctor because my husband's arm was in a sling from rotator cuff surgery a few days before. After treatment, he drove me home and nearly had an accident because he was on pain killers. Anyway, I was out of commission for five days, including the weekend, before I could return to work.

      I don't think a person can successfully clean a puncture wound in the hand. I'm glad you are all right now. You did a great job in this article. Nobody should take a cat bite lightly.

    • Victor Dorn profile image
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      V Ron Dorn 7 months ago from Canada

      Thanks for all the comments, everyone! I don't know if there's a way to reply to each person individually... but you are all 100% correct. The sad thing is, I completely know better! I know you shouldn't be giving belly rubs to cats you don't know well and that you need to care for a wound right away and yet things did not go according to what I know I should have done, as is so often in life, and I learned a good lesson from that! Thank you for reading and leaving your comments below! It's great to read your advice/experiences! For anyone reading, take the advice in these comments seriously, they are written by some very smart people!

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 7 months ago from Midwest

      Sadly, many cats see belly rubs as a form of aggression, even the ones who like the periodic belly rub can turn in an instant. I also care for several cats and foster from time to time. I never, ever touch the belly of a cat I don't know extremely well because I learned a similar painful lesson. I was bitten once by a cat I would never have suspected would be aggressive at all. He was a neutered, big old fat boy of a Tom cat and a real sweetheart who belonged to my friend. She rubbed on his belly all the time so when he was sitting by me and rolled on his back I thought why not? then "chomp!" Ouch... Fortunately, I didn't end up with an infection like you did, but it was a pretty painful bite. I learned later on from a cat rescue that you should never pet a cat's belly - even if they offer it, unless you really know that cat very well and can see if he/she is overstimulated and ready to turn. I have a cat now who loves a good belly rub, I've raised him since he was only 3 weeks old, and I still feel leery lol. Glad your hand is feeling better! It's good to read that you don't blame the cat :). So many people get angry at pets for having normal animal reactions. You show a great deal of love and respect for animals.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 7 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      A bite or scratch from any animal can wreak havoc on us....even a bite from a human being! Anytime the skin is punctured and open to the air~germs ~bacteria~viruses.....we are susceptible to INFECTION. "Cat Scratch fever" is a real medical emergency.

      Yes, you're correct...you did make a terrible mistake by not immediately washing the wound (no matter how small or how deep) with a germ killing soap or liquid such as hydrogen peroxide. The 2nd step would be to apply a strong antiseptic,,,whatever is readily available, even mouth wash, betadine, neosporin & then wrap it to protect it from further exposure and irritation.

      Sorry you had to learn the hard way and thanks for sharing your experience. People should always treat injuries immediately with whatever available until possible medical attention can be sought. The best rule of thumb is to never think an open wound is "nothing to worry about." Better SAFE than sorry.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 7 months ago from England

      Ouch! I have had cats in the past but luckily nothing like this happened! I suppose all animals have germs on their teeth, but scary stuff, and I am glad you are fine after your ordeal.

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 7 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      V Ron Dorn, I loved your article. The domestic cat has something in common with big cats of the circus. They love to eat rats and other filthy things. We certainly want to avoid getting bit by them. I never tangled with a tom cat or Siamese cat before. When I walk around my back yard I'll sometimes see a cat, it usually looks at me and runs away. Thank God, they're not like "The Birds," in the Alfred Hitchcock movie. Can you imagine if domestic cats decided to scratch up humans?