When a Cat Bite Leads To Hand Therapy

Taking the cat to the vet. When you own pets, it’s what you do. And on most days it’s a routine chore.

But for Sherry Whitford, her vet trip on January 30, 2014 – one to just have her cat get a check-up – was all but routine. In fact, it landed her in a series of hand therapy appointments and became an example of how hand therapy is used to help return people to their active lives.

Here’s what happened.

When Sherry arrived at the vet, she had to wait longer than usual. As a result, after getting into the exam room and removing her cat from the carrier, the then unhappy cat bit Sherry’s hand at the base of the right index finger as she tried to hold his head still during the check-up.

It bled profusely and after pouring peroxide over it she wrapped it with gauze.

Sherry noticed a bit of swelling after getting home and headed to the Emergency Department the same night. By morning, she had returned home with instructions to return that afternoon for another round of antibiotics. But by late morning, thanks to swelling that spread up her arm, Sherry was back in the Emergency Room, on IV antibiotics then transported to MCV/VCU for hand surgery to drain the progressing infection in the hand. She was in surgery in Richmond before midnight on January 31, 2014.

Turns out, Sherry isn’t alone in her experience – that is, of a cat bite leading to emergency surgery. According to a study published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Hand Surgery, researchers found that almost a third of the people who sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic for a cat bite to the hand during a recent three-year period had to be hospitalized. And of the patients who were hospitalized, two-thirds ended up needing surgery to flush out the bacteria and remove infected tissue.

Cats have sharp teeth that result in deep puncture wounds. A Mayo Clinic research study reveals up to 85% of cat bites are on the hand or wrist. A cat’s mouth is home to a wide variety of bacteria and when a joint or membrane sheath around a tendon is punctured, it makes a great greenhouse for bacterial growth. It is difficult for antibiotics to reach these closed environments, therefore necessitating surgery to flush out the infected tissue and bacteria.

Sherry spent nearly a week in the hospital being treated with IV antibiotics to fight the infection in her hand. She improved slowly and was discharged to go home.

How does that lead to hand therapy?

On February 5, 2014, Sherry was seen at Tidewater Physical Therapy Hand Therapy Center in Williamsburg for wound care and therapy to restore her range of motion and function.

Prior to her injury she was an avid quilter and her goal was to return to quilting. When she came to Tidewater Physical Therapy, the incision in the palm of the hand just below the index finger had been left open to heal.

During her therapy, she received whirlpool treatments and cleaned the wound until it healed closed. During this time exercises to maintain the range of motion of the hand and fingers was key to restoring Sherry back to her prior level of function.

Sherry was seen for a total of twelve visits over a month’s time and during that time progressive exercises and manual stretching restored her hand motion and strength.

Her desire and determination to resume quilting was a strong motivation to restoring her function.  Every day she would work on quilting – working with small pieces of fabric and pushing her hand to move in ways that were challenging and painful.

Sherry Whitford’s story is not only informative, but inspiring. She was determined to return to a hobby she loved and geared her therapy around this goal.

She has since resumed quilting and her normal routine.

Laura Coleman, PT, DPT treats patients at the Tidewater Physical Therapy Williamsburg Hand Therapy Center. She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1989 where she studied architecture. In 1998 she learned design of a different kind and graduated from Old Dominion University with a Master of Science in Physical Therapy. She completed her Doctor of Physical Therapy studies through Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006. Laura joined the Tidewater Physical Therapy team in 2000. Make your own appointment with Laura by calling 757.565.3400 or click here to find a clinic near you.