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Cat bites may be more dangerous than previously thought

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If you're wary about getting bitten by dogs, you might as well be as careful with cats. Although people tend to be more afraid of dogs because they're often bigger, louder and more intimidating, a new study has found that cat bites pose more serious threats than dog bites.

A Mayo Clinic research published in the February issue of Journal of Hand Surgery found that cat bites can be very serious and one in three people who got bitten by cats had to be hospitalized.

For the study "Cat Bite Infections of the Hand: Assessment of Morbidity and Predictors of Severe Infection", researchers analyzed the data of 193 individuals who were treated at the Mayo Clinic for cat bites to the hand between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2011.

The researchers found that 57 of these patients were hospitalized and were admitted for an average of 3.2 days. Of those who were admitted, 38 had to undergo surgery and eight of them needed more than one operation. The researchers also said that 80 percent of the patients were prescribed oral antibiotics but 14 percent of them needed to be hospitalized because outpatient treatment with antibiotics didn't work for them. Notably, the average age of the patients was 49 and 69 percent of them were women. 

Why are cat bites dangerous? Study lead author Brian Carlsen, a plastic surgeon and orthopedic hand surgeon at Mayo Clinic, attributes the risk of infection to the cat's fangs.

"Dogs' teeth are blunter, so they don't tend to penetrate as deeply and they tend to leave a larger wound after they bite. The cats' teeth are sharp and they can penetrate very deeply, they can seed bacteria in the joint and tendon sheaths," Carlsen explained. "It can be just a pinpoint bite mark that can cause a real problem, because the bacteria get into the tendon sheath or into the joint where they can grow with relative protection from the blood and immune system."

Carlsen also said that cat bites contain a strain of bacteria that is difficult to fight with antibiotics.

The researchers noted that cat bites over a joint or tendon sheath and those that are characterized by inflamed skin, pain and swelling tend to be more serious and require aggressive treatment. They have likewise advised physicians and victims to treat cat bites seriously and evaluate the wounds carefully.

"Cat bites look very benign, but as we know and as the study shows, they are not," Carlsen said. "They can be very serious."

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