Cat Bite Prevention: It Should Get More Attention

Dog Bite Prevention Week occurred in May and was devoted to educating the public about the dangers of dog bites and ways to avoid them.  Certainly dog bites are a serious problem with an estimated 4.5 million people bitten in the U.S. each year.  But cats also injure people. And as the popularity of cats has increased, so have the opportunities for cat bites.  What do we know about cat injuries and what has been done to help prevent injuries from cats?

We actually know very little about the frequency of and the number of people injured by cat bites.  Few research studies about cat bites have been conducted, and to our knowledge there have been no surveys of the general population or of cat owners asking about bite frequency.  Research about dog bites tells us that about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. Do cats injure people more often or less often than dogs?  We don’t know. 

Intuitively, we would think that cat bite injuries would be less serious than dog bite injuries.  After all, cats are smaller than most dogs, have smaller mouths and can inflict less serious trauma than most dogs.  There have been no recorded deaths in the U.S. directly attributed to a cat injury while there are about 15-25 people who die as a direct result of dog bites every year. 

However, medical researchers report that cat bites are more likely to become infected than dog bites and that the infections can lead to complications and more prolonged treatment.  Furthermore, it is claimed that cats are much more likely to carry rabies than dogs, and that far fewer cats are vaccinated against rabies than dogs.  This makes the risk of rabies from cat bites far higher than from dog bites (Reviewed in Wright, 1990).

Several studies have examined public health records for incidence of reported cat injuries. Records from local health departments for the state of Indiana from 1990-1992 show that dog bites accounted for 78% of all animal bites reported, cat bites accounted for 16% and other animals (raccoons, rats, horses) accounted for the remaining 6% (Sinclair & Zhou, 1995).

One of the earliest and most comprehensive studies was from the city of Dallas, Texas in the year 1985.  In that year, cat bites accounted for 25% of the reported animal bites in the city (Wright, 1990).  Dr. John Wright, the researcher, looked at the circumstances of the cat injuries including the characteristics of the cat, the victim and the physical setting. 

Stray, un-owned female cats accounted for the majority of the bites, with most bites occurring in the summer months.  The victims were more often adult women.  Seventy percent of the injuries were described as scratches with 63% of injuries delivered to the hands or fingers.  Eighty-one percent of victims got care for the wound, with the majority doing home first aid.

A study of animal bite data from the city of El Paso, Texas for 1995 showed similar results (Patrick & O’Rourke, 1998).  These authors reported that cat bites accounted for 14% of animal bites during that year.  They also found that most of the cats were un-owned strays, but unlike the Dallas data, slightly more than half were males.  Adult women were the most common victims, and the majority of wounds were to the hands and fingers.  They also reported that the majority of wounds were received when the victims tried to pet or pick up the cat.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that on average 66,000 people sought help for cat injuries in hospital emergency departments every year (O’Neil et al., 2007).  This compares with a yearly average of 370,000 people seeking emergency services for dog bites. Cat bites accounted for about 15% of both dog and cat bites treated annually in emergency departments.  Women were more likely to be treated in emergency departments for cat bites than were men.

The pattern that emerges is that the circumstances and victims of cat injuries are different from those of dog bite injuries.  Most dogs that bite are not strays but are known to the victim, but most cat bite injuries are from strays and cats unknown to the victim.  Most dog bite victims are male children, most cat bite victims are adult women.  These data suggest that the strategies for preventing cat bites will need to be different from those for preventing dog bites. 

What sorts of programs are in place to help prevent cat bites to people?  Not many.  There is one educational video for children providing good advice about how to avoid cat and dog injuries both from known and unknown animals (“Dogs, Cats and Kids”, see reference list).  There is very little written information to help the public avoid cat injuries. 

Handouts that help owners recognize fear and threat in cats and describe how to manage, prevent and treat cat aggression, as well as the reference list and links to the online articles are available to members of our Behavior Education Network.


  • I read this article with interest as my partner was hospitalised for a week due to a cat bite injury. We had rescued a cat (most likely a stray) that had been run over. Whilst taking it to the closest afterhours vet, the poor animal bore down on my partners arm twice, making me stop the car to physically (but gently) remove it’s teeth from his person.
    After dropping the cat at the vet, I wanted to take my partner to the hospital, knowing full well the implications of this injury. It was late at night and my partner expressed a reluctance and was quite blase. I loaded him up with pain killers and wrapped his arm in a firm dressing after tending to the wounds. By the end of the next day he was in so much pain he agreed to a trip to the hospital.
    After a long wait, he was finally seen and the next day he wanted to leave but the Doctor would not allow him, telling him he needed intensive IV antibiotic therapy or he faced the possibility of loosing his arm! My partner was quite shocked – all for a cat bite he said!

    And a few of our veterinary clients have told us they too have had trips, stays and multiple surgeries as a result for cat bites from their own cats.

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Gillian – what a scary example of how dangerous cat bites can be. The overwhelming evidence is that cat bites are so much more likely to be associated with serious infections is certainly borne out by your experience. Your partner should have listened to you! Maybe next time. 🙂

    • kathy

      Reply Reply

      I was bitten on my arm by my neighbors cat this Sept. I was surprised when I ended up in the hospital on IV for a cat bite. I never knew cat bites were so dangerous and painfull. What I find frustrating is how a cat bite is handled so lightly by the town I live in. All I am trying to find out is if the cat was in good health after the 10 days spent in quarentine. I was told by the person hired by the board of health in our town, who also was the one who put the cat in quarentine, that she was on the cat owners side and she cannot discuss this with me. Do victims have the right to know the health of the cat? The hospital advised me on what paperwork to send to authorities and who to contact regarding the bite. After doing that it seems everyone washes their hands of this. Nobody has contacted me to see how I am doing, or let me know about the cat’s health.

  • Dj

    Reply Reply

    I know for a fact that cat bites kill people. I know of at least two cases that have happened in the last few years, but there are probably many more that I haven’t heard of. If the cat bite draws blood, get to the ER fast for prophylactic antibiotics or the the infection can go systemic and cause a massive heart attack.

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