Cat bites might look harmless, but particularly if you suffer a cat bite to your hand, you should pay attention. The problem comes from the sharp fangs of the cat, which can leave deceptively deep wounds.
A recent study published in the Journal of Hand Surgery showed that one out of 3 of the patients presenting to an emergency room required hospitalization to manage their infections.
The researchers looked at the records of 193 people who came to the Mayo Clinic (one of the most prestigious medical centers in the U.S.) between 2009 through 2011 with cat bites to their hand. Of those requiring hospitalization, the average stay was 3 days, but one required 2 months in the hospital. Smokers and people with weakened immune systems were more likely to require hospitalization.
Dog bites often look worse, but the resultant wounds are usually more open, and easier to clean. Cat bites tend to inject bacteria more deeply than dog bites, and the hand is particularly vulnerable since the covering sheaths of the tendons and joints are more superficial and easily penetrated.
Bites to areas such as your thigh, while they might be just as painful, typically are not as serious, since the fangs only penetrate into fat and not into such sensitive structures.
Indeed, the researchers found that cat bites that occurred over the wrist or over joints of the hand were the most dangerous. The body fights potential infections by immediately sending white blood cells and other factors to the site of a wound, but the areas near joints and tendons have less blood supply, so it is more difficult for the body to wage its battle.
Most of the people hospitalized needed surgery to open up and clean out their wounds, and often they needed infected tissues debrided (removed) to resolve the infection. Some ended up with long-term problems requiring reconstructive hand surgeries.
Up to 90% of healthy cats carry an aggressive bacteria in their mouths called Pasteurella multocida, which usually responds to amoxicillin. But often for deep bites encroaching near tendons, ligaments, nerves, and bones, antibiotic treatment alone was inadequate and surgery was required.
This study serves as a warning to all of us: don’t ignore a cat bite to your hand, even if it looks like a pinprick at the surface. You are better off seeking medical attention than risking long-term problems.
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