Attempting to help a stray cat always carries the risk of being bitten. Bites are comparatively rare in the U.S., but they do happen. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re willing to take the risk. If not, leave the stray cat alone. It will likely find a way to help itself if you are unwilling to lend a hand.
On the other hand, you may view the risk of being bitten as minimal. You are willing to take that risk in order to help an animal in need. That’s fine. Just know that if the animal does bite you, you’re going to have to take some action. At the very least, you’re going to want to seek medical attention just in case the cat is carrying a zoonotic disease.
What is a zoonotic disease? It is a disease that can be passed directly from one species to the next by way of contact. Note that there are far fewer zoonotic diseases than there are non-zoonotic. Nature has an interesting way of preventing diseases from being spread across species. There are only a few that can be transferred from cats to human beings.
So what can happen if a stray cat bites you? Here are a few possibilities, starting from the least severe and gradually increasing to a worst-case scenario:
1. Absolutely Nothing
You might be lucky enough that both you and the cat are completely healthy. Indeed, your cat bite may qualify as nothing more than a minor nuisance for couple of days. It heals up on its own; you go about your life as though nothing ever happened. Hopefully that is the case should you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a cat bite.
Statistically speaking, this is the result of most cat bites in the U.S. And even in cases in which a victim does contract some sort of virus or bacteria from the cat, that person’s immune system is strong enough to fight it off without a single symptom ever developing. That’s why experts say people shouldn’t freak out about cat bites. In most cases, they are completely harmless.
In terms of how you deal with animals, being bitten by a stray cat may have absolutely no influence on you at all. You may treat stray cats the same way you have always treated them, knowing that the bite you incurred is an anomaly. Life continues on as normal.
2. A Bite Changes the Way You Interact with Cats
The next possibility is that you suffer no physical harm from the bite, yet you still change the way you interact with cats. This actually happens a lot, and it’s reasonable. Most of us would begin reacting differently to an animal after being bitten. After all, we have our own built-in defense mechanisms that influence our behavior.
You could be the kind of person who instantly despises cats because of that one bite. Or you might become extremely anxious around cats even though you don’t hate them. At any rate, being bitten has had a definite impact on your psyche. It may take you some time to get comfortable with being around cats in the future, if you ever get comfortable at all.
In some rare cases, people develop an unhealthy fear of cats after being bitten. This could happen to you. You might develop a phobia where none existed before. If so, you can always ask a mental health professional what to do about it. There are ways to overcome all kinds of fears.
Barring all of that, you may be the kind of person who just decides to be more cautious after being bitten. You are still willing to help a stray cat in need, but you are also a lot more circumspect when being so. You take your time, you are a more careful in what you do, and you are not afraid to pull back if you think the risk of being bitten again is elevated.
3. You Contract Cat Scratch Fever
One of the small number of zoonotic diseases that can be passed from cats to humans is what we call cat scratch fever. There is a scientific name for the disease related to the bacteria that causes it, but that name is not important for this discussion. It can be passed to you through a bite or by the cat’s saliva coming in contact with broken skin or your eyes.
Should you be unlucky enough to be infected by the bacteria, you should see symptoms begin appearing within a few days. You will notice a mild infection at the site of the injury characterized by a swollen, red lump. That lump can also have a raised lesion that excretes pus.
The infection will usually cause the injury site to feel warm and painful. You might also develop other symptoms including loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, and headache. Any lymph nodes in proximity to the injury site might also become swollen.
Fortunately, cat scratch fever rarely results in severe symptoms. Many people who contract the bacteria never demonstrate symptoms at all. And among those that do, it is a lot like having the flu along with a couple of painful lumps on the skin. Cat scratch fever is easily treated with common antibiotics.
In rare cases, significant complications can arise from untreated cat scratch fever. This is one of the reasons experts recommend seeking medical care regardless of how minor a cat bite may appear.
4. You Contract the Rabies Virus
The biggest fear related to cat bites and scratches is the potential of developing rabies. Unfortunately, by the time a cat begins exhibiting symptoms of the disease, it’s too late. The vast majority of cats with rabies eventually succumbed to the disease. Note that rabies is a serious disease in human beings as well.
Rabies is a viral infection that is passed from cats to humans through contact with saliva. More often than not, humans contract the virus after being bitten. But a bite is not a prerequisite. You can contract the virus if an infected cat’s saliva comes in contact with an open wound or any broken skin.
Rabies Cases Are Rare
Contracting rabies is a worst-case scenario after being bitten by a cat. Therefore, we do not want to unnecessarily alarm you. Note that only 55 cases of human rabies have been reported in the U.S. since 1990. Contracting the virus does not automatically mean you are going to get the disease. Like most other viral infections, there is some incubation time involved. Early treatment virtually guarantees you will not get sick.
Testing and Treatment for Rabies
Following a bite, you are going to want to contact local animal control so that they can attempt to trap the animal. Why do this? Because there is no test that can confirm the existence of the rabies virus in cats. The only way to know if the animal has rabies is to confine it and observe it for 7 to 10 days. If the cat is indeed rabid, animal control will know within a few days.
Unfortunately, there is no rabies test for human beings either. If there is any chance that the cat that bit you is rabid, doctors will not take any chances. They will immediately begin treating you so that you do not develop the disease. Treatment consists of a series of inoculations that take place over a specified amount of time. The inoculations are effective in nearly every case.
5. You Contract Rabies and Don’t Get Treated
The worst-case scenario is one of contracting the rabies virus and not getting treatment. Here’s what you need to understand: the incubation time in human beings ranges from 30 to 60 days. In a small number of cases, the incubation period may be as little as 10 days. The point is that you cannot wait for symptoms to develop in order to be treated.
Should you contract the virus and not seek treatment, one of the first symptoms you will begin to experience manifests itself as sensations of pain, tingling, or itching at the site of the injury. It will be followed by flu-like symptoms including muscle aches and pains, fever, chills, and fatigue. You will feel just like you have a bad cold or the flu except for the fact that you also have the pain and tingling sensation at the injury site.
As rabies progresses, it begins to attack other parts of the body. Left untreated, you could eventually develop extremely high fever, confusion, seizures, and coma. Should you reach this state, there is very little that medical science can now do for you. Eventually your organs will begin to shut down. If you do survive, you will likely require the assistance of machines to keep you going.
Don’t Take Any Chances with Cat Bites
You have learned about five possible outcomes that could follow being bitten by a cat. We think it is safe to say that no one wants the worst-case scenario of contracting rabies and dying from it. The good news is that worst-case scenarios are extremely rare in the US and most of Western Europe. We know enough about animal bites and zoonotic diseases to keep such cases to a minimum.
Obviously, most people would prefer the best-case scenario. We would all prefer that being bitten by a cat results in nothing more than a minimally irritating wound that heals itself in a couple of days. But is there any way to know what would happen in your case until you are actually bitten? No. So caution is the rule of the day.
Do not take any unnecessary chances with stray cats. If you encounter a cat that you believe legitimately needs your help to survive, be as cautious as you possibly can during each and every interaction. Do not just run out of the house, extend your arm, and attempt pick up the cat as though you have nothing to worry about. You just don’t know. You might have plenty to worry about.
If you are unfortunate enough to be bitten by a cat, do not shrug it off like it’s nothing. Call animal control, trap the animal if you can do so safely, and then get to your doctor or urgent care center for treatment. In all likelihood there will be no long-term consequences to deal with. In the unlikely event that you do contract the rabies virus, you are going to need early treatment if you hope to stave off the disease.