New Mexico's Pet Resource SPRING 2007


Heed Those Cat Bite Warning Signs

text and photo of her cat Sammy by Nancy Marano

Needle-thin incisors bite deeply into my hand and wrist. The pain quickly grabs my attention as does the blood flowing down my hand.

I’ve lived with cats all my life and was never bitten until a few years ago. I held Sammy so the veterinarian could examine him more easily. We got through the exam fine, but when it came to the toenail trim all hell broke loose.

Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention to Sammy’s signals. Suddenly, ten pounds of squirming cat was flailing around on the metal table. He grabbed hold of my arm with his back feet while his teeth chomped down into the soft flesh above my thumb and above my middle finger. By the time I managed to put him down, blood was flowing off my fingertips onto the floor. The veterinarian and I got him back into the carrier, and I scrubbed my hands thoroughly with antiseptic soap.

I realized Sammy had a reason for his actions. He’d been at the veterinary clinic several times in the past few months because of recurring abscesses on his thumbnails. The abscesses were treated and flushed out, not a pleasant process, and he took a course of antibiotics. I think the past flashed through his brain when the veterinarian picked up his paw, and he said, “Not this time.”

Then I did something I’m going to warn you not to do. I forgot about the whole thing. I’d scrubbed my hand well and nothing was bleeding so I thought the puncture wounds would heal in time. I was amazed when I saw my hand the next morning. It looked like a blown up rubber glove with my fingers dangling off the end. I knew I needed to see a doctor.

The doctor took one look at the angry, red lines moving from the wound up my arm to above my elbow and gave me a course of intravenous antibiotics. Then I came back every day for a week to get antibiotic shots. While not fun, this episode certainly taught me a lesson in caution.

Whether you’ve handled cats for years or you’re adopting your first cat, the possibility of a cat bite is always present. Learn to recognize and heed the clues a cat gives before biting.


It’s easy for a cat’s tooth, which is thin and sharp, to puncture a joint or a bone, taking bacteria deep into the hand and making infection more likely. Since puncture wounds are difficult to clean thoroughly, bacteria are left in the wound.

The most common bacteria found in a cat or dog bite is Pasteurella, which cats and dogs have in their mouths naturally. The first signs of a Pasteurella infection are swelling and redness at the site of the bite. The redness can move upward toward your body. This requires immediate medical attention.


If you receive a cat bite, it is important to clean the wound thoroughly. Scrub with soap and hot water to remove as much dirt, saliva and bacteria as possible. Let the water run over your hand for several minutes to make sure the wound is clean and the soap is gone. Even if you don’t see signs of infection, you should go to the doctor right away and get an antibiotic as a precaution.


One of the main ways to keep from being bitten is to know how to pick up and restrain a cat correctly. For tips on how to do that I talked with people who handle hundreds of cats a week Patricia Harding, a cat show judge with The International Cat Association (TICA) and Dr. Emily Walker, D.V.M., owner of Albuquerque Cat Clinic, a cats- only practice, gladly shared their expertise.

Both said the first rule is do not surprise a cat. Harding says she always talks to a cat for a bit before she picks him up. Then she turns the cat around in the judging cage and brings him out backwards. That way the cat isn’t afraid, and she has a good grip on him before he’s out of the cage.

“A cat gets a certain look in his eyes when he doesn’t want to be touched,” Harding says. “When I see that look, I don’t touch him.”

“It’s easy to tell when you shouldn’t approach a cat,” Dr. Walker says. “Cats give you a lot of warning before they bite because they don’t want to do that. A cat flattens out. His ears go flat against his head and his body flattens out on the ground. He hisses, yowls, and growls trying to tell you not to mess with him.”

Scruffing is a technique Dr. Walker uses in her practice. Scruffing keeps a cat from moving his head or biting you. You hold the back of the cat’s neck with one hand while supporting his back legs and chest with the other hand. The back of a cat’s neck is a dominance point and holding him there usually will subdue him. When scruffing, it’s important to always support the back legs. Never pick up a grown cat only by the back of his neck because you can hurt him.

Many people have trouble putting a cat in a carrier. Dr. Walker suggests doing it backwards. She puts the carrier on end, scruffs the cat and lowers him into the carrier.

“If you have time, you may be able to entice a cat into the carrier with food. The last resort is to put a pillow case over the cat. Then lower the cat and the pillow case into the carrier. You can leave the pillow case open at the end and the cat will be able to get out inside the carrier. Using minimal restraint to get the job done is always best,” she says.

As a general rule, children should not handle cats. Of course, this depends on the nature of the cat and parental supervision. Cats are more unpredictable than dogs, and they bite very quickly. “As a general rule, I think a child should be nine or ten before handling cats unless the cat is very docile,” Dr. Walker says.

Cats are wonderful companions and the fear of a cat bite should never stop you from adopting one. The love and joy of living
with a cat shouldn’t be missed. But remember to learn a cat’s warning signals, and if you do get bitten, go to the doctor right away.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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