When I began grooming cats I understood how serious a bite could be because of the amount of bacteria in a feline’s mouth. I washed every bite out and saw the doctor if a bite exhibited any of the warning signs my doctor advised me on. I never imagined any problems, as long as I took care of my bites immediately. I couldn’t tell you how many bites I’ve had over the years, but I can tell you, before June 2014, I would groom almost any cat an owner could physically hand to me.
In June 2014, I was finishing a groom on an older cat. On the final touch, I came at her from the front and CHOMP, she bit my finger. It was a friendly “I am done now” warning bite, but my life changed at that moment. I knew it was my fault for putting my finger in front of a cat’s mouth.
Immediately I knew this bite was different. Within 20 minutes I had an emergency call in for my doctor. When the nurse returned my call, she informed me that the course of antibiotics I just finished for another concern would take care of the cat bite. I explained this was much different than any bite I’ve had before. She replied with what we have all heard so many times; “If there is any streaking go right to the emergency room, otherwise let the antibiotic do its work.”
I went home and did everything I knew to do to ease the pain and draw the bacteria out. Thirty–six hours later, at 2 a.m., I could not tolerate the pain. There was no streaking, but my hand was swollen and the pain was unbearable. I drove to the emergency room in hopes they might give me something for the pain. The pain was so intense I could not wait until 8 a.m. to see my doctor.
When I arrived at the emergency room, I told the person at the desk I had a cat bite and it was very painful. I don’t know much about hospital emergency rooms, so when they rushed me right to the back, I didn’t understand the severity of the situation. The nurse started drawing lines around my arm, marking the time to indicate how rapidly the infection was spreading. I could hear other patients screaming in the background, yet all attention seemed to be on me. I told the nurse if I could just have a little something for the pain I could see my doctor in the morning. He said, “We are prepping you for emergency surgery. The doctor will talk to you soon.”
Wait! What? Surgery? It is just a cat bite. By 9 a.m. I was in surgery to have the infection cleaned out of my finger. In less than 48 hours the sheath around the tendon in my middle finger went from healthy to infected by this one simple bite.
I was in disbelief because I never had the streaking that everyone warns about. In my limited understanding of cat bites, I believed if there was no streaking, the bite was not serious. I spent four days in the hospital, then the following three weeks with my hand wrapped in a splint. When I left the hospital, my finger was literally filleted straight down the length in two places. I did not have stitches so the doctors could be sure the infection was out. Months later, the surgeon told me it was a miracle the finger was saved.
I thought I did everything right. I called my doctor, rinsed and soaked the bite. What went wrong?
When I reopened my business after the bite, there were several steps I took to prevent future bites. The first thing I did was discontinue service to my most aggressive clients. I was surprised to learn that the vet would only see Cubbs in a trap cage. Fluffy’s owner had to have their last cat extricated (word owner used) by animal control. Kermit was no longer allowed at any of the local vets. I heard a similar story from eight different owners. It quickly became obvious I was grooming feral cats that had no business being groomed by me.
Next I made it my personal policy to only handle cats the way I was taught. I paid a lot of money for a high–quality, feline–exclusive grooming education and needed to follow my training to the letter. If you have not invested in high–quality feline grooming training, that is my second recommendation. I was taught and knew not to approach a cat from the front, yet I did. My carelessness was the reason I was bitten in this situation.
If you already know how much cat you can handle and groom within that parameter, and have had or are working towards obtaining high–quality feline grooming training, there are two safety devices I highly recommend.
Kevlar sleeves are amazing. When you are not fast enough to move out of the way, Kevlar sleeves give you the protection you need while allowing for full mobility of your fingers. I usually start a groom with my left sleeve on. Then, depending on the cat, I add my right sleeve or remove my left sleeve. I try to always be aware of what the cat needs at that moment in time and meet them at that place.
I also like the hard–sided, helmet–type muzzles. They allow the cat to see, breathe and bite naturally while giving you protection from their mouth making contact with your skin. These devices also shield the cat’s face from the air of the dryer. When you look in the center of the device, you can make sure the cat is breathing properly and their eyes are not dilated. While these devices look a little extreme and have a learning curve, I can monitor the cat for signs of distress and they provide more bite protection than a traditional muzzle.
Cat bites are very dangerous. If you are bitten, it is important you seek medical attention. Putting measures in place to avoid bites is the best preventive step you can take. Know how much cat you can handle and don’t be afraid to turn aggressive felines away. Seek high–quality feline grooming education and use barriers like Kevlar sleeves and hard–sided muzzles. When in doubt, remember—no cat is worth losing a finger over. ✂️