If a feline friend turns foe and bites your hand, it may lead to a hospital stay, a new study finds.
The findings, published in the Journal of Hand Surgery, revealed how one out of three patients who suffered from a cat bite was hospitalized -- not so much for the bite wound itself but for infections stemming from cat bacteria that gets injected deep into the joints and tissue.
“It can be just a pinpoint bite mark that can cause a real problem, because the bacteria get into the tendon sheath or into the joint, where they can grow with relative protection from the blood and immune system,” senior author Brian Carlsen, M.D., a Mayo Clinic plastic surgeon and orthopedic hand surgeon, said in a statement.
The study observed 193 patients who received treatment for a cat bite on the hand from January 2009 through 2011. Two-thirds of those hospitalized needed surgery to clear out the infection. Most of the patients were middle-aged women.
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Doctors took note that people seemed more dismissive of cat bites than dog bites since the former looks more like a pinprick, Carlsen said. “Cat bites look very benign, but as we know and as the study shows, they are not. They can be very serious,” he added.
The gravity behind cat bites stems from the shape of their teeth.
“The dogs’ teeth are blunter, so they don’t tend to penetrate as deeply and they tend to leave a larger wound after they bite. The cats’ teeth are sharp and they can penetrate very deeply, they can seed bacteria in the joint and tendon sheaths,” Carlsen explained.
Minnesota resident Dawn Bothun experienced a cat bite firsthand and was hospitalized for it. She waited a week after her black cat, Mr. Binks, bit her hand before going to the hospital, USA Today reports.
"I washed the wounds on my wrist and put antiseptic on them," Bothun said. "I thought I could manage them on my own, but I couldn't move my wrist after a week."
Bothun spent eight weeks in and out of the hospital receiving care for the infection in her hand. Her medical bills topped $15,000.
"The infection from the cat bite reached my tendon," Bothun said. "Every time they would stitch me up after flushing the wound, the infection would just get worse. The pain almost drove me up the wall."
Bothun’s story is mild compared to Paul Gaylord's. The Oregon man was in a coma for 27 days in 2012 after a cat bite gave him the bubonic plague. “I had collapsed lungs, my heart stopped and my hands and feet turned black,” Gaylord wrote in The Guardian. He spent a month in the hospital before returning home.
“It’s hard to believe it happened to me, but rather than feel depressed, I’ve always felt positive and happy to be alive,” he wrote.
The latest study, Carlsen says, highlights the growing need for cat bites to be taken seriously. "It may look like a pin prick, but rule of thumb go see a doctor if a cat bites your hand," he said.