Cat Bite Injuries to the Hand and Fingers

cat bite
Cat teeth can cause serious hand infections. Steve Gorton and Tim Ridley / Getty Images

Cat bite injuries are common, especially on the hands and fingers.  Often bitten while playing with a gentle pet, cat bite injuries to the hand can cause serious problems that requires treatment.  While these injuries occur often, it's important to be evaluated as soon as possible to ensure the best treatment.

Bite Injuries

Animal bite injuries occur often.  In fact, over half the population will sustain an animal bite injury in their lifetime, and almost all of these are from dogs or cats.

  The vast majority of animal bite injuries occur on the hand.  In the United States alone, about 4.5 million animal bites occur every year.

Those Sharp Teeth

Cat bites can be particularly troublesome, and often deceiving in terms of the extent of the problem.  Cat teeth are long, narrow, and sharp.  A puncture to the skin that looks like a small puncture may travel deep down inside the hands and fingers.  The concern is that what often looks like a small injury to the skin may have actually penetrated down to joints or tendons.  In those cases, infection may involve those deeper structures, and require more aggressive treatment.

When a cat bite occurs to the hand, the sharp, pointed teeth of the cat clamp around the body part, and can deliver the bacteria from the cat's oral region into the hand.  It's almost like taking an unsterilized needle and puncturing it deep into the hand.  The bacteria from the cat's mouth, or from your skin, can penetrate into your hand and fingers.

What To Do

It is always a good idea to have medical evaluation after a cat bite injury.  The symptoms of a cat bite infection can develop quickly, and treatment is most successful when initiated early.  Symptoms often develop within a few hours of the bite.  Common symptoms of a cat bite include:

  • Redness around the bite
  • Swelling
  • Worsening pain
  • Fever

It is particularly important to be evaluated to determine if the puncture is likely to have entered a joint or a tendon.  Because you body has a more difficult time fighting infections in joints or around tendons, infections of these structures must be managed more aggressively.

Typical treatment of a cat bite to the hand detected before prolonged symptoms is to manage with antibiotics.  Even if there is no clear sign of active infection, cat bite injuries have such a high chance of developing infection that antibiotics are typically prescribed.  The normal antibiotics are broad spectrum (the can fight many types of infection) as many different types of bacteria can be the culprits of a cat bite infection.  One study of hand bite injuries found that antibiotic administration lowered the chance of infection from almost 30% down to 2%.

In patients who develop infection of joints or tendons, surgery may be necessary to clean the bacteria from the joint.  Again, prompt treatment can help to avoid this level of treatment, but even with antibiotics, some infections may require more invasive care.

Untreated infections can cause more serious problems including worsening of the infection, joint damage, tendon rupture, or bone infection (osteomyelitis). 

Bottom Line

Early treatment after sustaining a cat bite is important.  Many people who sustain this injury don't bother with prompt treatment because the injury doesn't look bad, but the consequence of neglecting these injuries can be serious.  Early antibiotic treatment can help to lower the chance of a more serious problem from developing.


Kennedy SA, et al. "Human and Other Mammalian Bite Injuries of the Hand: Evaluation and Management" J Am Acad Orthop Surg January 2015 vol. 23 no. 1 47-57.

Medeiros I, Saconato H: Antibiotic prophylaxis for mammalian bites. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2001;:CD001738.

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