Fatal Felines: Fact or Fallacy?
July 21, 2011 4:31 PM   Subscribe

Has a domestic cat ever actually killed a human being? I can't find any evidence of this, and yet, I keep running into people who seem weirdly fearful of cats (and no, I am not talking about allergic folks). What is going on?

I know about the old wives' tale about cats supposedly "sucking the breath" of sleeping infants, and I guess I could see that coming about as a cautionary myth given that babies can certainly suffocate from pillows and other squishy fluffy things placed in their crib.

But that aside, is there ANY documented instance EVER of a domestic cat managing to kill a human being of any age?

I'm not talking about larger wild cats (e.g., mountain lions) here as I know felids of that size are perfectly capable of snapping our puny monkeynecks. Just plain old ordinary felis catus.

I've googled the heck out of this question to no avail, and have been curious for a while, so figured I might as well try asking here. Really the main reason I am curious is because I've encountered more people who claim to be afraid to keep cats than dogs, even though it IS easy to find instances of dogs killing humans in the news. And I've heard of far more instances of people giving up cats vs. dogs when a new baby joins the family, which -- if I am indeed not just missing some vast bank of Fatal Cat Attack data out there -- seems rather strange to me.

(Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am an avowed Cat Appreciator and am currently privileged to share my home with four wonderful felines. But I swear they didn't put me up to writing this!)
posted by aecorwin to Pets & Animals (54 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Cats "kill" people with compromised immune systems, or infants, by being a primary vector for toxoplasmosis.
posted by paulsc at 4:36 PM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

There's also cat scratch fever.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Whooooa there...you can be afraid of cats without being afraid that the cat will kill you. Have you seen the claws on those guys? Even the happiest little kitties, who will be perfectly happy to let you rub their bellies, can decide in a millisecond that they are DONE HAVING THEIR BELLY RUBBED NOW and will claw the ever living shit out of your hand for daring to come near their precious belly parts. A friend of mine growing up got her eyeball ripped open by her otherwise lovely and docile pet cat that she had had for years. Those sons of bitches will cut you.
posted by phunniemee at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2011 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: Paulsc: link, please? As in, can you point to an actual case where someone died from toxoplasmosis and it was directly traced to a cat? I am looking for concrete cases here, not theoreticals.
posted by aecorwin at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2011

Here's an article talking about transmission and risks of toxoplasmosis. I didn't read the whole thing and it seems to just be a review, so for specific numbers you might have to dig deeper, but it says pretty unequivolcally that people get toxoplasmosis from cats (not exclusively, but in many cases), and toxomplasmosis can cause death, especially in infants.
posted by brainmouse at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2011

... and people with HIV.
posted by lukemeister at 4:49 PM on July 21, 2011

Response by poster: phunniemee: having grown up around all sorts of animals (both in my and relatives' homes), I am well acquainted with the pointy bits on cats. I still have a scar on my left pinky from when, at age 11, I learned the valuable "don't pick kitty up while the vacuum is running" lesson. My sister also had to get stitches following her "don't pick kitty up by the head" lesson. But neither of us fear cats, so I figure for people who DO harbor such a fear they'd had to have experienced/heard about something worse than limb-laceration.

That said, the eyeball story...ew! That I could see having a lasting impact...
posted by aecorwin at 4:49 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: I would think historically rabies would have been pretty threatening. There have been incidents of rabid cats attacking humans. Every case of rabies was fatal before 1885, so it seems pretty likely that at some point in history at least one rabid cat bit one human and transmitted the disease, killing the human.
posted by anaelith at 4:50 PM on July 21, 2011

"In 1908, T.gondii was first discovered in rodents. It was not named as an infectious disease until 1932 when the first death occurred in an infant due to congenital toxoplasmosis. Later, it became noticed in some adults with cancer in 1968. In 1983, many cases of death due to toxoplasmosis were documented among immunocompromised individuals and those with HIV/AIDS. [5] Today, T. gondii affects approximately one third of the world’s population. "
posted by paulsc at 4:50 PM on July 21, 2011

Animal Related Fatalities in the United States (PDF) -- but the statistics collected are binned too broadly to directly attribute any specific number to cats.

I would suspect the biggest cause of death by cat would be trip-and-fall accidents.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:51 PM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Phobia (n): A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.

Yeah, it's not necessary for a cat to kill in order to be afraid of them. My grandmother was terrified of cats - even kittens - and refused to visit when we had one unless we let a friend sit the cat while she was there. She had no reason to fear cats - had never been hurt by a cat and had never seen a cat hurt anything. They simply terrified her.

Of course, some of these phobias could stem from the old tales that cats were witches' familiars and in league with the devil. Their shiny eyes don't help...
posted by patheral at 4:52 PM on July 21, 2011

There was also that grim reaper cat in the Rhode Island nursing home, a few years back. Oh hey, here's an update on him. He's now cuddled up with 50 inpatients before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:53 PM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

...or has he?
posted by deludingmyself at 4:53 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ih. Some people think they are dirty. They don't like being covered in cat hair and may be fearful of sudden, unexplained nastiness like biting or scratches. Some people just aren't animal people.
posted by amanda at 4:54 PM on July 21, 2011

People are scared of all kinds of things that can't injure them severely. Why are you assuming that someone who is afraid of cats automatically believes a cat will severely maim them?
posted by Specklet at 4:54 PM on July 21, 2011

But neither of us fear cats, so I figure for people who DO harbor such a fear they'd had to have experienced/heard about something worse than limb-laceration.

Why do you figure that? Some people are afraid of mice, but mice aren't going to hurt them. I'm terrified of earwigs, but they're harmless.

Fear isn't always rational.
posted by that's how you get ants at 4:55 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, they'll definitely eat you once you're gone. That's a bit terrifying.

(I have two cats and live with this fear everyday ;) )
posted by imalaowai at 4:57 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you ever seen cats fight? That shit can be scary. If someone's only significant exposure to cats is seeing or hearing them going at it in some back alley, that could definitely feed a fear.

Also: Cats can trigger asthma, which can be fatal.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:59 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: I've seen cats kill things bigger than themselves. I can envision a scenario where a little "luck", a sufficiently motivated cat could get into a person's neck and pop an artery. I won't say it is cat-egorically impossible.

But I think most fear comes from the pointy parts being annoying, and cats' non-pack mentality. They don't give a flying furball who the alpha monkey is, and that freaks some people out.
posted by gjc at 5:01 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it's because of an innate fear of tigers, which certainly eat people. Small cats resemble tigers to an amazing degree, in most respects other than size.

All this talk of toxoplasmosis is silly. People are far more likely to get it from eating rare meat than from being around cats. "Risk factors most strongly predictive of acute infection in pregnant women were eating undercooked lamb, beef, or game, contact with soil, and travel outside Europe and the United States and Canada. Contact with cats was not a risk factor. Between 30% and 63% of infections in different centres were attributed to consumption of undercooked or cured meat products and 6% to 17% to soil contact." (source: BMJ vol 321, p142, "Sources of toxoplasma infection in pregnant women: European multicentre case-control study")
posted by Ery at 5:03 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As circumstantial evidence, here are a couple of cases of cats consuming human flesh: Personally, it's clear to me that cats are man-eating psychopaths.

But, in seriousness - I understand that limb-laceration doesn't bother you, but experiencing that or the possibility of similar lacerations happening to more sensitive parts of one's anatomy is probably enough to make some people flinch away from an unfamiliar cat out of good sense, especially one that is behaving antagonistically as they are sometimes wont to do.
posted by XMLicious at 5:06 PM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ery -- sure, it's not very common, especially in the US, but if the question is "is there ANY documented instance EVER of a domestic cat managing to kill a human being of any age?" the answer is yes, from toxoplasmosis.
posted by brainmouse at 5:06 PM on July 21, 2011

Not toxoplasmosis. Instead, Frangipani and bleeding Dick:
posted by 4eyes at 5:10 PM on July 21, 2011

Then, there's always this metafilter page (just for fun)
posted by patheral at 5:12 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: (Oops. Here it is with active link...)
Not toxoplasmosis. Instead, Frangipani and bleeding Dick.
posted by 4eyes at 5:21 PM on July 21, 2011

Well, there's this.
posted by tomswift at 5:26 PM on July 21, 2011

The folks at Snopes have looked into it. Their verdict: cats "sucking the life out of babies" do not exist. Sudden infant death syndrome is a more likely cause.
posted by elgilito at 5:27 PM on July 21, 2011

In a bizarre accident, Pointycat, when I first got him, fanged an artery in my wrist. (He was new from shelter & recently neutered. He escaped apartment. A mean feral tom was outside. Simultaneously, Tom jumped to Pointy, I grabbed Pointy to "rescue" him, Pointy got spooked, yowled & lunged full force at feral Tom & got me instead). There was the usual drama when an artery is punctured so I can envision a freaky situation where a strong, freaked out cat could catch the right artery in the right person at the right time.
posted by pointystick at 5:30 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Cat bites are something to fear. If you ever get one is absolutely necessary to seek medical attention. 85% of cat bites become infected. I had a bite from cat play on my finger that took six months to heal. Near the end of recovery they were considering admitting me to a hospital for treament--all over a cat bite that would not heal. The infection they spread can quickly migrate to joints and bones causing big problems.

I too have heard of cats and dogs both eating their masters after death.
posted by nogero at 5:43 PM on July 21, 2011

> I would suspect the biggest cause of death by cat would be trip-and-fall accidents.

That's what I came here to say. I bet there are hundreds of people who've tripped over a cat at the top of a staircase and died.

But of course that wouldn't be deliberate on the part of the cat.

... or would it ...?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:46 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Very sorry. Guardian link is screwy somehow. Essentially, it was the same as tomswift's linked article, which is also on BBC News with a picture of the culprit, clearly ex-SPECTRE.
posted by 4eyes at 5:46 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Snopes notwithstanding, reports of cats killing babies persist: Sweden .. Lebanon ..
posted by beagle at 5:48 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: CDC sez "The number of rabies cases reported in cats is routinely 3-4 times that of rabies reported in cattle or dogs."
People are non-fatally injured in falls related to their dogs 7.5 times often than in falls related to their cats, but apparently "an estimated average of 86,629 fall injuries associated with cats and dogs occurred in the United States each year during 2001--2006, for an average annual injury rate of 29.7 per 100,000 population." (Source.)
And of course there's cat-scratch disease, caused by Bartonella henselae.
posted by gingerest at 5:53 PM on July 21, 2011

Cats are unpredictable, especially to people who don't like cats and so don't know how to read kitty body language. (For example, if you didn't grow up around cats, you won't know that back-turned ears means "I'm annoyed.")

I love cats myself, but I could see how it wouldn't be fun to be around a mercurial, razor-taloned furball, triply so if you've had an experience where you were petting a cat and then it suddenly slashed you for seemingly no reason.

Also, people who don't like cats tend to keep their distance from them, which paradoxically causes the cats to be more intrigued. People who galumph over to cats and try to smoosh their faces often make a cat a little uncomfortable. This leads to a situation where cat-fearing people who are averting their gaze find curious cats drawn to them.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:56 PM on July 21, 2011

We used to have a cat that definitely had some serious issues of territory dominance, jealousy and just plain violent crisis (note that in my family we always had at least 4-5 cats, now I myself have 2, so I like them and saw plenty of them but this one was different). I was really scared of the cat at times, knowing how full of nerves and teeth and claws it was. I don't think it could have killed me, but still, it would have been hurtful... Without proper medical attention? Definitely could have been fatal.
posted by ddaavviidd at 5:59 PM on July 21, 2011

Just to balance things out
posted by ddaavviidd at 6:00 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: And I've heard of far more instances of people giving up cats vs. dogs when a new baby joins the family, which -- if I am indeed not just missing some vast bank of Fatal Cat Attack data out there -- seems rather strange to me.

I have no special insight into generalized fear of cats, but this particular phenomenon actually makes sense to me.

(First of all, lethality really doesn't enter into it... if I had reason to believe my pet might injure-but-not-kill my child, I'd get it out of the house no less quickly than if I feared murder.)

It seems not uncommon to own a cat who will scratch/bite if touched the wrong way, or by the wrong person, or at all, and that's considered acceptable. Which maybe it is, where only adults are concerned... it's easy enough to tell guests "We don't pet Luther." But when you're about to bring a new baby into the household, the picture changes somewhat.

Meanwhile--partly because a dog CAN kill you and partly because of our different expectations of dogs vs. cats--an equally prickly dog would have been flagged, long before the advent of a baby, as having a behavior problem, and either trained or given up.
posted by staggernation at 6:37 PM on July 21, 2011

some cats cannot stand the sound of crying babies and tend to "attack".
There was a mefi post a few weeks back about exactly this reaction. the cats in question had previously never shown Amy aggression.

I also found this: thecatsite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-205849.html

There are several you tube videos showing kitties reactions to recorded baby crying. I am so going to test our cats tollerance since we will have a crier of our own in November. this: thecatsite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-205849.html

There are several you tube videos showing kitties reactions to recorded baby crying. I am so going to test our cats tollerance since we will have a crier of our own in November.
posted by Pork n Beans at 6:59 PM on July 21, 2011

I know someone who hates cats because "they sneak up on you." Fatal? Well...

"for the period 2001--2006...an estimated average of 86,629 fall injuries each year were associated with cats and dogs, for an average annual injury rate of 29.7 per 100,000 population..... the highest rates of injuries occurred among persons aged >75 years, and the most common diagnosis was fracture. Although no specific information was available on the rate of hip fracture, such fractures would be among the most serious injuries. Among older adults, hip fractures can result in serious health consequences, such as long-term functional impairments, nursing home admission, and increased mortality."

However, your bigger point seems also right, as "nearly 7.5 times as many injuries involved dogs (76,223 [88.0%]) compared with cats (10,130 [11.7%])."

Still, a danger is a danger. For example, a Pennsylvania man nonfatally stabbed himself in a cat-related fall. This internet commenter broke three ribs after a cat-related fall down the steps.

I found these links quickly, so you could probably find specific fatalities with more research.
posted by salvia at 7:09 PM on July 21, 2011

Tripping over your cat on the stairs and falling to your death even has a facebook page.
posted by salvia at 7:14 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: This is a little off topic but given the subject matter of your question I figured you might find it amusing. I used to work at a job where I wasn't involved with hiring new people, but I did have the task of taking them out to lunch after their interviews as a courtesy (myself and my colleagues who came to lunch didn't have any input on hiring decisions, but the interviewees seemed to think otherwise). Anyway, if a conversation ever started to lag, which was often, we'd ask:

If you were alone in a room with n angry cats and no weapons, how many cats could you take on and win?*

The answers over the years ranged from one to one hundred... any answer at the far end of the spectrum always gave me a chuckle.

* The complement to this question is: If you're in a room with no weapons and one angry bear, how many humans do you need to take on the bear to ensure success?
posted by telegraph at 7:18 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's because cats don't really seem domesticated like dogs are compared to wolves. They're just smaller and less (fatally) dangerous versions of the big cats. And you always kind of know that if regular cats were themselves bigger they'd just as soon kill you and eat you as to lay on your warm lap or get a scratch behind the ears.
posted by 6550 at 8:17 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep running into people who seem weirdly fearful of cats ... What is going on?

My best friend growing up had a cat that she'd found as a feral kitten, and it never quite became tame. One day I was in her house walking to the bathroom in the rec room, and I had to walk inches from the desk the cat liked to hide under. I never thought anything of it, but one day the cat just reached out and slashed my ankle for no reason. It actually made me nervous to try to use that bathroom after that because I didn't want the cat to attack me again, it actually tried to several times after that. Later on it was contained in its own room, and it always snarled and lunged at me whenever I had to go in there (where extra sodas and things were kept.)

That was the only cat I was around much from like age 7 to age 20 or so. So I didn't know that not all cats were like that, and weren't just hating you and out for your blood, and wouldn't just cut you unpredictably. I didn't even dare to try to pick up or hold another cat in all those years. Only after I was around a lot more cats, I realized that the feral cat was just different.

So it was never that I thought a cat would seriously kill me, and I wasn't even thinking about any diseases. I was more afraid of the idea that some pissed off animal would launch itself at me and be scratching, biting, and clawing my flesh.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:36 PM on July 21, 2011

Response by poster: @anaelith: actually the first comment under the (rather alarmist-sounding) rabies story you linked to says (albeit without sourcing) that "There has only been one recorded death of a human getting rabies from a cat, and that was in 1975 when treatment for rabies was not dependable." Which is interesting and does actually address my question, so thanks!

@specklet: you wrote: People are scared of all kinds of things that can't injure them severely. Why are you assuming that someone who is afraid of cats automatically believes a cat will severely maim them?

...and while I concede that my original question was probably somewhat hastily worded (sorry about that, I was on public transit about to lose my wifi signal), I definitely am not assuming that the cat-fearing folks I've encountered are scared of being maimed. Plenty of people have explicitly expressed their fears of being scratched, etc., to me, and while I have no trouble understanding why someone would prefer not to be scratched or bitten, it's the extreme levels of some peoples' fears that tend to perplex me. But as others in the thread have stated, fear isn't always rational.

@folks pointing out that some cats react very badly to the sound of babies crying: all well and good, but I have still never actually heard of a cat managing to seriously injure or kill a baby. No news stories, no anecdotes, no nothing. Perhaps that is partly due to most parents being sensible enough to keep a terrified/liable-to-lash-out cat away from their infant, but still, it seems like cats upset by a crying baby by and large tend to try and stay as far as possible AWAY from the noise source, whilst taking out any redirected/fear-aggression out on more familiar humans or other pets.

@4eyes: Yes, THAT sort of thing is *exactly* along the lines of what I was most curious about. Rather a freak bit of bad luck for that poor lady, and not especially indicative of cat-nature-on-the-whole, but still the precise sort of concrete example I was wondering about the existence of. Thank you!
posted by aecorwin at 9:13 PM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: I found several cases by a quick search on "cat bite fatal":

Fatal Pasteurella multocida septicaemia following a cat bite in a man without liver disease is a 1987 journal article reporting a fatal infection that came from a cat bite (the case was in the UK).

A couple of cases with patients with compromised immune systems, who got fatal blood infections from cat bite and scratch:

Fatal fulminant sepsis due to a cat bite in an immunocompromised patient is a 1992 journal article reporting a man who died 70 hours after the cat bite.

Pasteurella multocida sepsis, due to a scratch from a pet cat, in a post-chemotherapy neutropenic patient with non-hodgkin lymphoma

General info:
Zoonotic disease that cats can transmit to humans
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:32 PM on July 21, 2011

This is not directly cat-related, but it seems that another aspect of your question in the followups is that you assume that people have to be afraid of animals because of some rational fear, so you think that people must fear cats because they're afraid of harm.

This is not the case.

I am afraid of Plecostomus, which if you've ever had a fishtank you will recognize as the fish that have the mind-numbingly terrifying sucker mouths, and they eat the algae in the tank.

Rationally it's hard for me to think of a more innocuous creature. Non-rationally, just the thought of one makes me want to curl up in a ball and rock back and forth. They are scary and horrible and evil and wrong. I have to avert my eyes in the pet store if I happen to see them in a tank, and I stay very far away from their tanks, just in case. they might leap out and suck my brains out through my eyeballs.

Although I admit that cats are much more able to hurt you than Plecostomus (so people say), I am not afraid of cats.

Fear is not rational.
posted by winna at 9:38 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

A rabid cat bit an 11yr old and a 25 yr old male just last month.
We just don't have that many people *die* of rabies any more.

And given the danger of cat scratches and bites - cats bite and scratch children, babies and adults all the time.

Not to mention, I'd find it unlikely that no cat has EVER smothered a baby, given when I was a kid and staying at a relatives house, I woke up slightly smothered, thinking that I'd gotten the blankets wrapped around my head somehow, and it turned out to be their cat sleeping on my face.

That's also when I finally accepted I was very definitely allergic to cats - my eyelids swelled up so much I couldn't close my eyes for an hour or two, and the puffiness was still there the next day.

But y'know. That's just cats being cats.

They are definitely predators, and frankly it's not that surprising that the twing the 'Predator!' part of some people's brains, even if they're on the miniature end of that scale.
posted by Elysum at 12:14 AM on July 22, 2011

My SO's dad was pottering around in the kitchen when he reckons he must have accidentally stepped on the cat's tail. Anyway, the (normally very friendly) cat sunk its teeth into his leg. Cats mouths are pretty filthy and the depth of the bite meant infection took hold. He had a week in hospital to recover, and he could easily have died. He lost layers of skin right up to his hip joint that took months to grow back. This was with modern antibiotics, so certainly people could have died from this kind of bite historically.

The UK's ROSPA lists cats as a choking hazard which should be kept away from babies.

The other potential accident link is that pets run out into the road causing vehicles to swerve, with dangerous consequences/
posted by biffa at 2:14 AM on July 22, 2011

I had 2 cats when I was growing up. Watching them toy with a bird they've snared, but just injured to the point that it can't escape, can be pretty scary to watch. And watching my beautiful, cute, harmless kitteh Katie gnaw and crunch and devour the still-warm skull of one of her victims after she'd finished playing REALLY freaked me out.

Having said that, I'm not scared of cats.

I AM scared of birds though. It's something about their eyes, and feet, and feathers. They just look like alien creatures to me. I can't see ANY sign of ... intelligence or compassion, or something, when I look into a bird's eyes. But then, maybe I just haven't met the right birds yet.

Maybe there's some correlation there.
posted by Diag at 3:08 AM on July 22, 2011

The other potential accident link is that pets run out into the road causing vehicles to swerve, with dangerous consequences

Oh yeah, this has happened to me - twice. Unfortunately, I didn't swerve well enough, and neither the dog nor the cat survived, and I was left devastated. The dog's approx 10 year old girl owner/sister saw the whole thing. :(
posted by Diag at 3:12 AM on July 22, 2011

Were it not for antibiotics, I doubt I would be typing here. Cat bit me, and it went pretty red and blue within days...
posted by Namlit at 3:49 AM on July 22, 2011

P. 60 of this table from the CDC lists 1 fatality for cat-scratch fever in 2005.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 4:42 AM on July 22, 2011

There definitely are risks to keeping cats around babies. My second cousin developed toxoplasmosis after being exposed to a pet cat. She was only a toddler at the time and had lost eyesight in one eye before the infection was discovered. People are scared about disease transmission around babies and young children and the fears are not entirely irrational, IMO.
posted by peacheater at 6:36 AM on July 22, 2011

Okay... eeeek! I happened across an article about a woman who was bitten on her hand by a feral cat she had taken in, and who has had to have multiple serious surgeries and a skin graft from her thigh as a result, and the damage is just amazing. -- Of course, I immediately thought of this thread.

WARNING, this looks really awful, not for the faint of heart!! Woman’s hand disfigured by cat attack.

Seriously, wow. Don't bring a feral cat into your house that doesn't want to be there. Don't try to pick one up.
posted by taz at 12:25 PM on July 28, 2011

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