May 2016 Issue

Bitten and Not Vaccinated?

The biggest concern about bites from a wild animal is rabies. The majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes.

If your cat is current on his rabies vaccination, the veterinarian will address the wound and in most jurisdictions is required to give a booster, says Dr. Schoeffler. If there is human exposure and the cat is not up to date on his rabies vaccine, he may be placed in quarantine either at home or a veterinary facility for up to six months at the owner’s expense.

“If your cat isn’t current on a rabies vaccine and is bitten by a wild animal and subsequently bites a person, the health department will be actively involved,” says Dr. Schoeffler. It may require that your cat be tested for rabies, which can only be done postmortem.

Most states require rabies vaccinations for domesticated animals including dogs, cats and ferrets. Some states are beginning to provide exemptions for vaccination requirements if medically necessary as determined by a veterinarian, says the American Veterinary Medical Association.

”I know of a cat found in the garage fighting a fox, and the owner killed the fox with a shovel and brought it in with the cat,” Dr. Schoeffler says. “The cat was unvaccinated because it was indoors only. The fox tested positive for rabies, so the local health department demanded the cat be euthanized. The risk the cat presented to humans was deemed to be too high.”

A sad story, Dr. Scheoffler says, “but the reality is that rabies is almost uniformly fatal to any human or animal that contracts it.”

"Tigers of the Night"

Reports of attacks by the Great Horned Owl on cats are dramatic but rare. Thankfully, “Great Horned Owl vs. Tiny the Cat” on YouTube has a happy ending. A window separates the species.

The Great Horned Owl is a formidable predator, stalking from high above or walking nimbly around backyard bushes. It can take down birds and mammals larger than itself — males average about three pounds — and it can ingest what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes as “an exceptionally wide variety of prey.”

The remarkable list includes raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, falcons, other owls and skunks. National Geographic adds that the owl has “even been known to prey upon unlucky cats and dogs.”

Great Horned Owls are mostly nocturnal, earning the nickname “Tigers of the Night,” though some do hunt in daylight. Their young begin hunting in spring and summer. The best advice for owners: Don’t let your cat out in his fenced yard at sunset and sunrise. Better yet, keep your cat indoors at all times to minimize risk to him and to native species such as birds and small mammals that he may seek as prey.

Wildlife's Biggest Threat to Cats

Their bite wounds can result in serious infection, crushed tissues, organ damage and the potential for deadly rabies.

While warm weather brings out some wildlife, most creatures that could injure your cat in his fenced yard remain year-round threats. Cats typically will not engage them, but bats can swoop indoors and coyotes in a search of a meal can jump fences.

Talk to your cat’s veterinarian about the risks in your area. The list of other species that can harm your cat throughout the U.S. is extensive, ranging from venomous snakes, foxes, raccoons and skunks to Great Horned Owls.

Unapparent Effects

The biggest danger results from being bitten. “Any bite wound needs to be seen immediately,” says Gretchen L. Schoeffler, DVM, ACVECC, Section Chief of Critical Care at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Some animals can appear fine, but tissue can be crushed, and the body’s immune cells can’t get to the area where the bite occurred. Some bites are punctures. Some are a grab and pull. What you see at the surface of a bite wound is much like what you see of an iceberg above the surface. What lies below is often much more impressive and worrisome.”


Cats behind a backyard fence can be vulnerable to wildlife that can swoop and slither in.

First aid is not advised. “The only thing I would recommend is to apply pressure with a clean dry cloth if the wound is actively bleeding and if this can be done safely, given that the wound would be expected to be painful,” Dr. Schoeffler says. “I also recommend not giving any over-the-counter or leftover medications but rather wait until the veterinarian has a chance to make an assessment and discuss treatment options.”

Even wounds that appear to be relatively insignificant will benefit from veterinary attention. A bite wound will need to be cleaned and may be surgically explored, especially when the bite is over the neck, chest or abdomen. Underlying vital structures such as large blood vessels, nerves, the trachea, lungs and the abdominal organs are all vulnerable.

For example, “If a coyote grabs a cat around the abdomen, there is much more concern because the cat’s liver, spleen or intestines can be damaged,” Dr. Schoeffler says. “The sooner I can deal with it, the better the overall prognosis is for the cat.”


The Great Horned Owls’ yellow eyes are often compared to a cat’s. They’re amplified by an orange facial disk outlined in black. Their wingspan can reach an impressive five feet.

Surgery may simply involve cleaning and closing the wound over a drain or may be extensive when multiple organs have been affected or significant blood loss has occurred. At the very least, your cat’s hair will be clipped to allow for thorough examination, and the veterinarian will most likely prescribe antibiotics even if your cat seems fine.

“Bite wounds are much more likely to become infected,” Dr.Schoeffler says. “In addition to a bite creating a wound that is by definition contaminated — think about the teeth with saliva compared to a wound created by relatively clean scissors during grooming — bites always come with crushing and tearing of the tissues,” Dr. Schoeffler says. “Crushed tissue may no longer have a good blood supply necessary for speeding healing. Its absence makes the injured tissue much more prone to infection.”

If treatment is delayed and the wound becomes infected, the prognosis is uncertain. While infection can set in even with immediate treatment, the earlier antibiotics are started, the better the outcome for the cat.

Coyotes at Dawn and Dusk

Today coyotes can be found in every state except Hawaii. They’re omnivores, scavenging for livestock, rabbits, rodents, birds, carrion and — as suburbia moves into their territory — pet cats and dogs, according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service. “Coyotes have learned that small dogs and cats are easy prey.”

Coyotes are most often seen at sunrise and sunset and have no fear of approaching a house for food. The USDA’s advice: Feed pets inside and eliminate sources of water.


Coyotes are found in every mainland state.

Toads in the West and South

Toad toxicity is rare but can happen when a cat pounces and takes a bite of one. Most toads taste bitter, and even cats who mouth non-toxic toads will have excessive drooling, possible pawing at the face and an episode or two of vomiting, Dr. Schoeffler says.


The poisonous Colorado River Toad.

At least two toads are toxic, and if ingested and not immediately treated, can be fatal. The Colorado River (Sonoran) toad is found near the river and its large streams from Arizona to Southern California. The Giant Marine toad is endemic to South Texas and Florida. Signs of ingestion of either toad include crying, pawing at the mouth or eyes, drooling, respiratory distress, unsteady movements, seizures, fever and collapse. Wash the poison from the mouth with water and get veterinary care. It takes only half an hour for toxins to get into the system.

The poisons can cause irregular heartbeats, and monitoring and medications may be needed. The prognosis is poor but some cats survive.

Seasonal Snakebites

Pit vipers inflict the most venomous snakebites in North America. In the Southeast, they include rattlesnakes, water moccasins (cottonmouth) and copperheads. Coral snakes are in the cobra family.

Snakebites tend to be seasonal and regional, usually occurring in warm weather from spring through autumn. The incidence is highest in the Southeast and West and most common among cats exploring their backyard. The effects of a coral snakebite might not be seen for hours, but most victims of pit vipers show signs within half an hour. Signs of poisoning include shock, listlessness, muscle tremors, nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing.

“Try to identify the snake because a lot of snakes that look like venomous ones are beneficial snakes,” Dr. Schoeffler says. “Get a photo on your cell phone if you can. If you kill the snake, take a picture or bring it in, but only if you can do so safely.”

Antivenin is expensive and its availability limited because the venom must be milked from live snakes. Treatment may involve blood transfusions and supportive care with intravenous fluids. The prognosis depends on the species, the amount of venom injected, the cat’s overall health and the bite’s location.

Dr. Schoeffler’s parting advice: “Know your environment. If you’ve relocated, discuss potential local dangers with your cat’s new veterinarian. Immediate care is crucial in optimizing outcome.”