When I say “animal bite,” I bet you think of dogs (or maybe sharks, if you never quite recovered from seeing Jaws). You probably don’t think of cat bites…but you should. Even though kitty-cat teeth tend to inflict only pinprick-sized puncture wounds, these tiny bites can lead to big trouble, a recent study found—particularly if they occur on a certain part of the body.

Reason: Cats have very sharp teeth that can easily penetrate deep into human tissues, sending cat bacteria where it doesn’t belong. Also, when a cat bites, it typically goes for the hand—perhaps because the animal is protesting being picked up when it wants to be left alone—and it turns out that feline bites are particularly dangerous in that area. That’s because hands are compactly organized, with lots of tendons, joints and nerves very close to each other…and all very close to the surface of the skin. That makes it easy for a tooth to hit some important structure that can affect movement or sensation. In addition, there is relatively limited blood flow in tendon sheaths and around the many finger joints, which impedes the immune system’s ability to fight infection in the hand.

Even doctors don’t always appreciate how serious cat bites can be—which makes it all the more important for you to do so. Here’s what you should know…

WHO WINDS UP IN THE HOSPITAL?

Studies have shown that one-third of people who seek medical attention for cat bites on the hand end up in the hospital. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic wanted to find out which particular factors were associated with hospitalization, so they reviewed their records to find patients who were treated for cat bites to the hand from 2009 to 2011. They found 193 such patients. About half had gone to the emergency room for initial treatment, and half had started out with their primary care doctors before being sent to the hospital.

About 20% of the patients were admitted to the hospital immediately so they could start receiving intravenous (IV) antibiotics. About 80% were given prescriptions for oral antibiotics and sent home from the hospital—but among those patients, treatment failed in 14% of cases, requiring subsequent admission to the hospital for IV antibiotics. Here’s how the hospitalized patients fared…

  • The average hospital stay was more than three days.

  • 67% of the hospitalized patients needed a surgical procedure called irrigation and debridement to clean the wound and remove dead, damaged or infected tissue…and 14% of patients required more than one operation.

  • 63% of patients developed complications, such as an abscess, tendon problems or nerve problems.

  • 25% of patients experienced long-term consequences, such as reduced joint mobility or significant tissue loss that required reconstructive surgery.

    All from kitty bites!

  • The researchers identified various factors that increased the risk of needing to be hospitalized…

  • Bites on the wrist or on a knuckle were three times more likely to lead to hospitalization than bites into soft tissue or the shaft of a finger.

  • Cat-bite victims who smoked cigarettes were more than twice as likely to be admitted to the hospital as nonsmokers.

  • Patients with compromised immune systems—for instance, from cancer treatment, certain medications (such as steroids) or HIV—were five times as likely to be hospitalized as cat-bite patients with normal immune function.

    The main culprit: In their mouths, 70% to 90% of healthy cats harbor a particularly aggressive bacterium called Pasteurella multocida. When this bacterium is “inoculated” into human tissues via a cat bite, it is not easily destroyed by antibiotics.

    Self-defense: First, of course, decrease your chances of getting bitten! Don’t assertively handle any cat that considers you a stranger—if you’re introduced to a new neighbor’s cat, for example, rather than reach out to pet it or to pick it up, give it a chance to come to you. If that doesn’t happen on your first meeting, so be it. And even with a cat you know, if you make a move to pick it up and it seems to object, back off…don’t force the issue.

    If you are bitten by a cat, see your doctor right away to get started on antibiotics even if the wound seems minor at first—the depth and severity of a cat bite can be difficult to determine, the researchers noted. Immediate medical attention is especially important if you are bitten directly over the wrist or any joint in the hand…and/or if you develop any signs of infection, including redness, swelling, pain, warmth, oozing or reduced range of motion. Remember, just because a cat bite doesn’t initially seem as scary as a dog bite, it can still be a significant threat to your health.