A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Pet bites or scratches: Infection symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

Your dog or cat may be your best friend. Even so, pet bites or scratches can still happen.

If you are bit or scratched by a dog or cat, even your own, infections that can follow are serious. Don’t ignore infection symptoms or wait to seek medical care.

Saliva bacterium can make you really sick

A cat and dog cuddle.

Pet bites and scratches can cause infection.

  • Cat bites

Cats carry a bacterium in their saliva called Pasteurella multocida, which can make you sick. About 80 percent of people who are bitten by a cat get infected and symptoms are pretty severe.

“The cat bite can lead to a severe infection,” said Dr. Laurie Peterson, a Marshfield Clinic Health System Emergency Medicine-Urgent Care specialist. “The bite site will abruptly become red, hot and painful. If the bite is on the finger or hand it can rapidly involve the tendons and be more difficult to treat so it is important to seek medical attention soon after the bite.”

Antibiotics are used to treat the infection. If you think you have this infection, seek medical care immediately, Peterson said.

“Bacterium from a cat bite is very aggressive,” she said. “I’ve had to put people in the hospital even when we managed it in urgent care with IV antibiotics and the infection doesn’t respond. You can become very sick from this. So don’t wait to be seen if a cat bites you.”

Also, rabies can be a health concern with cat bites, especially if you do not know the cat’s vaccination history.

  • Dog bites

Symptoms are similar with dog bites, even though the bacterium is different. Only 5 percent of people get infected with dog bites. Usually, the bite has to be really deep or severe.

Report dog bites to law enforcement, even if it is your own dog. If a dog bites all the time, this becomes a safety issue.

“We always encourage capturing the animal, especially if it’s not your own,” Peterson said. “We worry about rabies, also, so we don’t want the animal running away.”

  • Cat scratches

A cat scratch or bite from an infected cat can lead to cat scratch fever, a bacterial infection that can cause you to get quite sick. It also is possible to get the disease if an infected cat’s saliva gets into an open wound.

“The most prominent symptom is very large and swollen lymph nodes,” Peterson said. “Lymph nodes in the extremity where the scratch is become enlarged and painful. Other symptoms are fatigue, headache, a low-grade fever and blisters or redness at the scratch site.”

Antibiotics are used to treat cat scratch fever but it could be three days to two weeks before symptoms appear.

Even if you know the cat or dog has had its shots for diseases like rabies, you should still see a doctor, Peterson advised.

“Whether it’s a bite or scratch, they are serious enough that you need to take them seriously and seek care,” Peterson said.

For immediate care, visit a Marshfield Clinic urgent care location.

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