Cat Bite 911. Do You Need a Trip to the ER?

Many Cat Bites Send Their Victims to the Hospital

When we think of cats, we may picture cuddly, docile pets. But in fact, cat bites and scratches can be quite dangerous. Approximately 30% of cat bites to the hand require hospitalization, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Hand Surgery. Cat bites have a high risk of infection, often necessitating intravenous antibiotics or even surgery.

In this article, we’ll cover when you should seek medical care for a cat bite, how to treat bites at home, preventative measures, and more. You’ll learn the signs of infection to look out for, risk factors that increase the chances of complications, and reasons why cat bites are prone to infections in the first place.

Causes of Cat Bites

Cats may bite for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common causes of cat bites include:


Kittens and young cats often bite while playing. Their sharp teeth can puncture skin even during rough play. Bites may occur when a cat gets overly excited or aggressive during playtime (Source).


Cats may bite out of fear or if they feel threatened. This often happens when handling or restraining a fearful or anxious cat. Bites may also occur when a cat feels cornered or trapped (Source).

Medical Conditions

Certain medical conditions can cause cats to bite more frequently. Conditions like dental disease, arthritis, ear infections, and abscesses may lead to biting due to pain or irritation. Neurological disorders can also increase biting behaviors (Source).

Signs of Infection

Cat bites can often lead to infections, even if the bite did not break the skin. According to the CDC, some signs and symptoms of infection from cat bites include:1

  • Redness, swelling, and warmth around the bite
  • Draining pus from the bite wound
  • Increased pain around the bite
  • Fever

Redness and swelling at the bite site are common signs of infection. Pus draining from the wound is also an indicator of infection. As bacteria multiply, they can cause increased pain around the bite. A fever may accompany an infected bite as the body reacts to the infection.2

When to Seek Medical Care

You should seek medical care if the cat bite causes a deep puncture wound, bites your hand, joints, or tendons, shows signs of infection, or if you have a weakened immune system. According to Emergency Physicians, deep puncture wounds have a higher risk of infection and should be evaluated by a medical professional. Bites to the hand, joints, or tendons can cause damage to nerves, tendons, and joints which may require antibiotics, wound care, and sometimes surgery. Signs of an infected cat bite include redness, swelling, pus, red streaks, increased pain, fever, and swollen lymph nodes near the bite. People with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly, diabetics, those on steroids, or people undergoing cancer treatment, are at higher risk of infection and should seek prompt medical attention for any cat bite.

Risk Factors

Certain groups of people are more likely to develop complications from cat bites. These high-risk groups include:

  • Very young children – Their immune systems are still developing, making it harder to fight infection.
  • Elderly individuals – Older adults tend to have weaker immune systems and may also have other chronic illnesses that increase infection risk.
  • People with compromised immune systems – Those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, or taking immunosuppressant medications can have weakened immune defenses.

According to the CDC, over 50% of cat bites in children lead to infection. The elderly and immunocompromised are also particularly prone to developing severe infections from cat bites (VCA Animal Hospitals). These high-risk groups should be extra cautious and seek prompt medical attention for any cat bite.

Treating Cat Bites at Home

For minor cat bites, initial treatment can often be done at home. According to WikiHow, the first step is to wash the wound carefully with soap and water to help remove dirt, debris, and bacteria (source). Gently clean around the puncture wounds and scratches. Do not scrub hard or re-open closed wounds. Rinse thoroughly with clean water.

After cleaning, apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to the bite, as recommended by Stanford Children’s Health (source). This can help prevent infection in the wound. Spread ointment gently over the punctures and scratches using a cotton swab. Do not wipe off the ointment.

Finally, cover the bite with a sterile bandage or dressing, advises VeryWell Health (source). Keeping the wound covered helps protect it from dirt and bacteria. Change the bandage daily and check for signs of infection. See a doctor if redness, swelling, oozing, or fever develop.

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment for cat bites may involve the following depending on severity:

Cleaning the wound thoroughly with soap and water to remove saliva, bacteria, and other debris. According to VCA Hospitals, you should see a physician as soon as possible to properly clean the wound.

Prescribing antibiotics to prevent infection. Common antibiotics used include amoxicillin-clavulanate, azithromycin, or cephalexin, according to Medical News Today. Antibiotics are typically taken for 3-14 days.

Administering a tetanus shot or booster if needed. According to Healthline, a tetanus shot is recommended if you have not had one in the past 5 years.

Surgical intervention for severe bites or infections. Surgery may be required to clean infected wounds or remove damaged tissue. This usually requires hospitalization.

Preventing Bites

Preventing cat bites starts with proper handling techniques. Always support your cat’s body fully when picking them up and do not dangle them or pick them up by just the scruff. Avoid restraining or forcibly holding cats when they show signs they want to be let down or get away, such as flicking tail, ears back, hissing/growling. Let them go and give them space if they seem agitated.

It’s also important to learn your cat’s body language. Watch for signs of overstimulation or agitation like a wagging tail, dilated pupils, and tense body posture. If you notice these signs, stop petting and give them space to calm down before continuing to interact. Unexpected biting often occurs when cats’ warnings go unheeded.

Providing an enriched environment can also help curb biting behavior. Make sure your cat has plenty of appropriate toys, scratching posts, cat trees, and solo play opportunities. A bored or frustrated cat with pent up energy is more likely to bite.

With time and patience, biting can be minimized through proper handling, reading feline body language, and keeping your cat’s needs met. For more tips, see this article from The Spruce Pets.

Seeking Veterinary Care

If your cat is biting frequently or seems to be in pain, it’s important to take them to see a veterinarian. Illness or injury can cause cats to bite more often. According to Purina, signs your cat may be ill or in pain include:

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Changes in litter box habits
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lethargy or decreased activity
  • Aggression or irritability

A veterinarian can examine your cat and determine if there is an underlying medical issue causing pain or discomfort that is leading to more frequent biting. They can also test for issues like dental disease, arthritis, infections, and more.

If the biting stems from aggression, a vet can refer you to an animal behaviorist for treatment options. According to The Spruce Pets, options may include:

  • Medications to reduce anxiety or aggressive tendencies
  • Pheromone therapy
  • Environmental changes to reduce stress
  • Aversive conditioning
  • Graduated exposure to triggers

Working with a qualified professional can help uncover the root cause of aggression and implement an effective treatment plan.


In summary, cat bites should always be taken seriously as they can introduce bacteria deep into tissues and cause infections. Even superficial bites can progress to infection. Monitor all cat bites for signs of infection like redness, swelling, pus, pain, and red streaks. Seek prompt medical care if any of these symptoms develop or if the bite is on the hand, foot, or face.

It is crucial to properly clean all cat bites right away with soap and water. Apply antibiotic ointment and keep the wound covered. Do not self-treat serious infections, delay medical care or rely only on home remedies. Consult a doctor to determine if antibiotics or other treatment may be needed to prevent dangerous complications.

Prevent bites by understanding cat behavior, properly socializing cats, trimming their nails, and gently discouraging biting and aggression. If your cat is prone to biting, seek veterinary advice to address the underlying cause. While cat bites can be concerning, educating yourself and taking prompt action can help avoid major problems.

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