Instances of stray cats attacking humans are quite rare in this country. However, aggression is always a possibility when humans and animals interact. When warning signs of aggression are not recognized, human behavior can cause a cat to eventually attack. And unfortunately, the results of such attacks can be serious.
Cats have a number of impressive defensive weapons. Between sharp claws and teeth, an aggressive cat can cause serious lacerations and contusions. And if an attacking animal is diseased, that disease could potentially be passed on. As such, it is always best to approach a stray cat with caution.
Should you ever be unfortunate enough to be attacked by a cat, you need to know how to respond. This post offers you a step-by-step process for ending the attack and taking care of yourself in the aftermath. Each of the steps can be adapted to the seriousness of the attack. Whatever you do, remember that the animal has attacked you due to its natural defense mechanisms. It was nothing personal.
Step #1: Do Not Panic
It is easier said than done, but the first step in dealing with a cat attack is to not panic. Why? Because panic can cause you to do things that the cat perceives as aggressive and/or threatening. That only encourages the animal to continue the attack. What could have ended rather quickly may be prolonged if you panic.
So what do you do? Try to push the cat away first, then slowly back away yourself. Do not attempt to charge the cat or turn and run. Both actions can be interpreted as aggression. The more calm and relaxed you are, the more quickly the situation will de-escalate. If you remain calm, the attack is unlikely to last more than a few seconds. It is not like a stray cat wants to pounce on you and spend minutes clawing at your face to take your eyes out.
Step #2: Observe Where the Animal Goes
You should definitely seek medical treatment after a cat attack, but first make an effort to observe where the animal goes, if you can. This might be helpful later when local animal control officers attempt to locate the cat. Of course, this is assuming you report the attack – which you should when you seek medical help.
Observing the cat for up to 10 days makes it a lot easier to determine whether the animal was infected with rabies. On the other hand, you cannot take that chance if you don’t know where the animal goes immediately following the attack. If the cat quickly disappears from sight and animal control officers can’t find it, both they and your medical team will have to assume it was rabid.
Step #3: Call Local Animal Control
The third and fourth steps are interchangeable depending on the severity of your injuries. If you can afford to delay seeking medical attention for a couple of minutes, immediately call local animal control to report the attack. They will likely send an officer right away in an attempt to locate the cat before it disappears.
Animal control will probably want you to provide details of the attack. If you must seek medical attention right away, do not delay on behalf of animal control. You can always fill them in later. When you do eventually speak with an officer, do your best to give a fact-based account. Animal control officers need as much information as possible to do their jobs.
Step #4: Seek Medical Attention
You should always seek medical attention following an animal attack regardless of how minor your injuries might appear. The reason should be obvious. If it’s not, it can be encapsulated in a single word: disease. Although the number of zoonotic diseases in the feline arena is small, those that do exist can be rather serious.
Rabies is perhaps the most well-known zoonotic disease. If the stray cat you encountered was rabid, a bite could easily transfer the virus to you. The virus that causes rabies is found in saliva. Also note that you can contract the virus without actually being bit. If the animal’s saliva found its way to any broken skin, you could become infected.
Another disease you have to worry about is cat scratch fever, a bacterial illness that can be transferred from cat to humans via scratches and bites. You can also contract cat scratch fever if saliva comes in contact with broken skin or your eyes.
CDC estimates suggest that upwards of 12,000 people are diagnosed with cat scratch fever annually. Of them, some 500 are hospitalized. Most people who contract the disease exhibit flu-like symptoms that go away with an antibiotic treatment. Complications are rare, but they do exist. Untreated cat scratch fever can lead to encephalopathy, neuroretinitis, osteomyelitis, and parinaud oculoglandular syndrome.
Setting the disease question aside for one minute, there is also the issue of severe lacerations inflicted by sharp cat claws. A laceration deep enough may require stitches to close. This is a case in which immediate medical attention is recommended. Get to the ER or urgent care center as soon as you can. In the meantime, bandaging the laceration and applying direct pressure can help stop the bleeding.
Step #5: Keep an Eye on the Area
Assuming you were attacked near your home and animal control officers do not locate the animal, keep an eye on the area for the next several weeks. The point here is to be on the lookout in case the cat makes another appearance, at which time you can alert animal control once again.
You might also inform your neighbors as well. This isn’t intended to frighten or panic them, but just to let them know that there is a potentially aggressive stray cat in the neighborhood. They will want to avoid contact with the animal too.
Why Stray Cats Attack
This post started by explaining that cats attacking human beings is rare. It is even more rare for cats to attack unprovoked. When it does occur, a natural reaction is to ask why. Fortunately, we know the answers. Cats attack for very specific reasons, some of which we can actually avoid.
The number one cause of cat attacks is fear. A stray cat fearful of its surroundings becomes anxious and defensive. If you were to approach the animal in such a way as to elevate its level of fear, you could push it over the edge. It may instinctively attack as a way of defending itself.
Another common cause of feline attacks is that of a queen defending her kittens. We often talk about the mama bear defending her cubs, but cats can be every bit as aggressive in defense of kittens. Should a stray cat give birth to kittens in your yard for example, the wisest course of actions is to just stay away. Mama will be fine on her own.
Other reasons cats attack include territorial aggression, unwanted human contact, and a misguided hunting instinct. In every case, the attacking cat is not singling out a human with an evil intent to do harm. It is simply acting out of natural instincts programmed into animals for self-preservation.
Your Chances of Being Attacked Are Slim
An hour’s worth of online research can have you believing that stray cats attack with regularity. But it’s not true. Statistics show that your chance of actually being attacked by a stray are very slim. To illustrate the point, let us compare cat bites with some other types of injuries that send people to the ER.
Statistics show that about 400,000 cat bites occur each year in the U.S. Roughly 66,000 cases wind up in the ER. When you compare those numbers to a total population of just under 327 million, you are looking at a very small minority of people being injured by cats – and that includes strays, pets, and feral cats.
By comparison, statistics show roughly 4.7 million dog bites annually in the US. Upwards of 800,000 of those bytes are serious enough to require medical attention. Dog attacks kill nearly three dozen people every year.
Moving on, check out the number of annual injuries resulting from the following types of incidents:
- Accidental Falls – 9.1 million
- Overexertion – 2.9 million
- Motor Vehicle Accidents – 2.7 million
- Accidental Cuts – 1.9 million
- Accidental Poisoning – 1.7 million
- Animal Bites and Insect Stings – 1.1 million
- Assaults – 1.2 million.
It should be clear from the above numbers that, relative to other causes of injury, the chances of being attacked by a stray cat are negligible. Unless a cat has a specific reason for attacking, it will not. And like most other animals, an anxious or fearful cat will look for a way to escape first. It will only attack as a last resort of self-preservation.
To summarize all that you’ve read, cat attacks against humans are rare. If you remain calm and act appropriately, the consequences of being attacked by a stray won’t be serious. Even if you were attacked by a rabid animal, early treatment will prevent you from actually getting the disease. Rarely do people develop severe and long-lasting consequences as the result of an attack. Even more rare are deaths related to cat attacks.
Should you ever be unfortunate enough to be attacked by a cat, do not panic. Move the animal away and then retreat slowly yourself. Watch where the animal goes so that you can inform animal control officers of its movement. They will want to track and catch the cat in hopes of determining whether it has rabies or not.
Any serious injuries – like deep lacerations, for example – should be treated at your local ER or urgent care center. Minor scratches and bites can be attended to by your primary care physician or an after-hours clinic. Please make sure that you seek medical attention even if you think your injuries do not require it. There is always the possibility of disease or infection.
Finally, unprovoked attacks are not the norm with cats. The best thing you can do to prevent being attacked is to handle stray cats with extreme caution. You might want to reach out and take care of an animal you feel sorry for, but caution is advised until you get to know the cat a little bit better. Just assuming a stray cat needs your assistance and will gladly accept it is an open invitation to aggressive behavior. Do not take the risk.