Although smaller than their canine counterparts, cats are capable of producing serious injuries through bites and scratches. Bites to the hand are particularly dangerous because of the structure of the hand. Because of the multitude of bones and joints, blood flow is restricted in the hand, making healing a more difficult process than normal. If infection in the hand develops, it can lead to serious complications such as septic arthritis.
Although dogs can exert more pressure in a bite, their teeth are generally dull. Cat's teeth are sharp and needle-like and are therefore much more likely to produce puncture wounds that introduce bacteria deep into the tissue. Cat bites may appear more trivial than dog bites but about 80% of cat bites become infected. Cats' mouths and claws generally have more bacteria than dogs' mouths, making the possibility of infection much higher.
Common cat bite infections include Pasteurellosis and Streptococcal and Staphylococcal infections. In Pasteurellosis, pain, redness, and swelling begin at the site of infection within two to twelve hours of the bite. The infection can spread very quickly and require immediate medical attention. If the bite is on the hand, the infection can cause permanent damage if proper care is not administered to the wound. Streptococcal and Staphylococcal infections mimic the symptoms of Pasteurellosis.
Another potential complication of cat bites and scratches is cat-scratch disease. The bacteria are carried in cat saliva and can be passed from cat to human. Cats also carry the bacteria on their paws, especially after cleaning themselves. Although cat-scratch disease is not generally considered a serious disease, it can be problematic for people with weak immune systems, such as those receiving chemotherapy, people with AIDS, or people with diabetes. Symptoms include a sore developing at the location of the original scratch and lymph node swelling.
Groups who are at elevated risk for infection following a cat bite or scratch include those who are over fifty years of age, organ transplant patients, and alcoholics or people with compromised liver functioning. Victims of cat attacks should immediately clean the wound with soap and warm water. The goal is to get as much of the animal's saliva out of the wound as possible, as that is the main source of infection. If bleeding occurs, apply pressure to the wound and elevate it above the heart. The bite or scratch should be monitored for infection. If it does not heal quickly or begins to show signs of swelling or redness, immediately contact your doctor.
If interested in learning more, this website about ways to deal with cat bites can help.