Moggie lovers beware! One bite from a cat can put you on the critical list
23:17 GMT, 14 May 2012
A few weeks ago I was at my friend Helena’s house playing with her cat, Mr Fluff, when he suddenly lashed out.
Mr Fluff is a cutie, but he’s a very aggressive moggie — and has been confirmed as semi-feral by a cat behaviouralist.
I’ve never left Helena’s house without a map of scratches on my arm.
Scarred: Catherine Gray, still bearing the marks of her ordeal, with a friendlier cat. 'Nobody had explained the peril I was potentially in,' she said
This time Mr Fluff flipped and leapt at me with a low growl. Hanging on to my arm with his claws, he sunk his teeth into my wrist twice.
I flung him off and, while spinning around, whacked my wrist against the door-frame. Ouch. Helena came running.
Mr Fluff was now crouched, hissing. She tried to pick him up to soothe him, but he shot at her foot and bit it, too.
Thinking little of it (other than that Mr Fluff could do with a relaxing spa day), we washed our bites with soap and water, slathered on Sudocrem and I went to bed.
The next morning my hand hurt. I ignored it. But when I tried to pull my tights on, I couldn’t grip them to yank them up. My hand was red and swollen.
‘I must have fractured my wrist when I hit the door frame,’ I reasoned.
I went to Chelsea & Westminster A & E and regaled them with the tale of human versus cat while I had my tetanus jab.
I couldn’t understand why they kept asking me about the tiny bites on my wrist. And then an X-ray revealed I had no fracture.
‘We think your hand is infected,’ the nurse explained.
‘A cat bite is much worse than a dog or rat bite. It’s the worst animal in the UK to be bitten by.
'Their mouths are filthy, swimming in bacteria. But because it’s so rare that they bite, it’s not widely talked about.’
I told them Mr Fluff lives in a gorgeous Chelsea townhouse, eats the finest cat food and never goes out, so surely I must be safe.
I listened, half amused, as they told me I would go for a ‘wash out’ the next morning under general anaesthetic. The procedure sounded innocuous, so why would I need a general
'People do need to be educated that cats are the most dangerous animal in the UK to be bitten by,' said Dr Suranjith Seneviratne
‘We’re just going to explore the wound,’ the surgeon explained.
‘You’ll probably be OK to go home tomorrow.’
They hooked me up to an antibiotic drip while, using my BlackBerry, I changed my Facebook status to a jolly ‘Catherine Gray has been hospitalised by a cat!’ before drifting off to sleep.
When I came round, searing agony gradually set in.
‘We’ve opened up the two bite marks and made two new incisions. There was a lot of pus to drain,’ the surgeon explained.
‘I’ve fed antiseptic ribbons through your hand to fight the infection further.’
These ribbons are gauze soaked in antiseptic, more commonly used after the removal of cysts.
The pain was such that nurses came with vials of morphine for me to gulp down every few hours.
I used my left hand to Google ‘cat bite infection’ into my BlackBerry.
Page after page came up, warning that a cat bite, especially to the hand, could cause severe damage.
I learnt that dog bites turned infectious around 15-20 per cent of the time, but cat bites do in 50 per cent of cases because moggies have thin, pointy teeth, which effectively inject you with bacteria.
Even if you wash the wound immediately, chances are you won’t get the bacteria out.
I read of a woman in Wales who died after contracting a rare blood disorder caused by a cat bite.
Now, I was scared. Nobody had explained the peril I was potentially in; presumably because they didn’t want me to panic.
I later learned the danger was particularly severe because the bites were to my wrist.
As Dr Suranjith Seneviratne, a clinical immunologist from London’s Royal Free Hospital, explains: ‘The wrist is packed with tendons and blood vessels, so infection can be pumped to vital organs very quickly and cause them to fail in extreme cases.’
I’d originally been told I could probably go home later that day.
‘We want to keep you in another night, just to keep an eye on you’ was the casual verdict.
Day after day rolled by. I was regularly pumped with antibiotics and my hand slowly healed. There were four scarlet incisions, each about a centimetre long and deep.
I whiled away the time with The Hunger Games trilogy, and could now waggle my fingers. I was high as a kite on morphine and tramadol and quite enjoying myself.
A test on the third day showed that the cat had given me Pasteurella multocida and Staphylococcus aureus.
An internet search revealed that both were potentially lethal. I didn’t want to know more.
‘If bacteria such as these travel from the soft tissue of the hand into the bloodstream, they can go to vital organs such as lungs very quickly, and can absolutely cause death,’ Dr Seneviratne tells me now.
This is because they can trigger sepsis, where the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the body, leading to organ failure. I am really, really glad I didn’t know that at the time.
But after four nights came the words of doom: ‘Another washout in the morning.’
I argued against it.
‘But I can wiggle my fingers! It feels all better!’ I pleaded, only to be told sternly: ‘If we don’t get all of the infection out, the consequences could be extremely serious.’
The previous time I’d been wheeled to theatre I was enjoying the novelty of my first hospital overnighter. This time, my face was ashen and I was trembling from nerves. I was worried I would come out without a hand.
When I came round two hours later, my hand was still there but the pain was excruciating. My teeth chattered.
It took seven doses of morphine for the pain to come down to bearable — usually you only get one dose every few hours.
At night, I barely slept. I begged the nurses for as much morphine as they could administer.
When three doctors swept back my curtain at 11am the next day, I physically winced.
But it was good news: ‘Your tendons are fine. You can go home later today. You’ll need to come back in a week for us to check the wound and for physiotherapy.’
For the next fortnight, I couldn’t really type. My mum or boyfriend washed my hair because I couldn’t get the bandage wet. I would dictate texts to my boyfriend.
Two months on, although full range of movement has been restored, a too-firm handshake makes me flinch.
I’ve been told I might never recover complete function of my hand so may not be able to play tennis or horse-ride again.
My hand is still inflamed, and the scars are blood red. My friends have affectionately dubbed my hand ‘the mutant claw’.
But at least I’m alive.
‘People underestimate the danger a domestic cat bite can do,’ says Dr Seneviratne.
‘Obviously being bitten by a stray cat is far worse, due to rabies, but bacteria such as Pasteurella are often missed by GPs, so it’s crucial to go to A & E with a cat bite.
‘You would have been at risk of death had you not received the right treatment so promptly.
'Those with a low immune system, say someone ill, are even more at risk.
‘I’m not remotely anti-cat,’ he adds. ‘A human bite is far more lethal, because we have more bacteria in our mouths than any other animal, yet no one would suggest all humans should be banished.
'But people do need to be educated that cats are the most dangerous animal in the UK to be bitten by.’
The only thing I’m bitter about is that I’m now slightly nervous around animals. Recently a feisty spaniel play-nipped me, not hard, but I burst into tears.
I still love cats, but the nation does need to know that our furry best friends are potentially lethal.
As for Mr Fluff, I’ll never darken his door again.