When kitties attack

PETS ISSUE: How to avoid a case of cat-bite fever

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Inside every housecat lurks a lion, and possibly a cellulitis infection.
PHOTO OF SPARTACUS BY SARAH PHELAN

sarah@sfbg.com

PETS Our cat Spartacus has a reputation for being a bit of a badass. But we never thought he'd end up under house arrest with a rap sheet from the police.

It's true that he still has the tightly muscled body of a tomcat who came in from the cold a couple of winters ago and stayed after we gave him food and a safe place to sleep. But he's settled down a lot since we got him fixed. He'll still bounce other cats from our yard and growls if you tip him out of his favorite chair. But he doesn't bite people. Or so I thought, until I scooped him out of the path of an unleashed dog one February night and he sunk his teeth into my wrist so fast I didn't even realize I'd been bitten.

But my wrist began to feel like it had been stung, and soon I noticed a swelling the size of a marble with four tiny tooth marks adorning my wrist. Since it happened at midnight, and since my tetanus shots and Spartacus' rabies vaccinations were up to date, I simply washed and disinfected the wound, planning to see my doctor the following morning.

"They're like snake bites," veterinarian Marie-Anne Wooley told me when I sought solace for Spartacus' sins. "A cat's teeth are long and sharp and when they pull out, the holes seal over, trapping the bacteria. Dogs mash things around so their bites are more open, making them easier to clean."

The doc immediately put me on antibiotics and said to come back if my wrist — already stiff and swollen — got worse. When a rash began spreading up my arm the following night, I headed for the emergency room, where they gave me an intravenous infusion of antibiotics.

"You have an infection of the skin called cellulitis," the ER doctor said, drawing ink lines on my skin to show how the infection had spread to my elbow and fingers.

She ordered me keep my arm elevated above my heart to prevent the infection from reaching my heart. And before I left the hospital, a police officer took an animal bite report. Animal Control told me to keep Spartacus inside for 10 days.

Even though I spent the next day bedridden, the bite tingled, hurt, and itched every time I lowered my hand. It took three visits to the ER, four days off from work, and two weeks of heavy-duty antibiotics before I was fully healed.

Judy Kivowitz, a nurse at Noe Valley Pediatrics, has seen squirrel, rat, snake, chipmunk, spider, even possible bat bites in the course of her work, and says treating animal bites varies widely.

"It depends on the animal — whether they are a pet and have had their rabies shots." If you have been bitten by someone's pet, you should wash, disinfect, apply Neosporin to the area, and inquire about the animal's vaccine status. Kivowitz notes that even if the animal is known, it should be quarantined for 10 days after biting someone.

Maybe we could all learn from Kivowitz's three basic steps in animal interaction, which she teaches in an animal-handling class she holds for toddlers. "Ask permission from the animal's mom and dad to touch it. Do one-finger petting. And don't look an animal in the eye — even if you know them."

Or perhaps more to the point, you can do what my doctor told me to do if it happens again with Spartacus. "Next time, try dousing the cat and dog with water instead of putting your arm in the way." Duh.

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