California Law re Cat Bite Injuries

Lawsuits for cat bites in California are less common than dog bite lawsuits. But people bitten by cats in California without provocation can sue for damages if:

  1. The owner knew the cat was dangerous or aggressive, and 
  2. The owner failed to restrain the cat or provide adequate notice of its dangerous tendencies.1

Compensatory damages for cat bites in California can include:

To help you better understand damages in cat bite lawsuits, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

Siamese cat biting human hand

1. Does California have a “one-bite” rule for cats?

California has a “one-bite” rule for cats, even though it does not have a similar “one-bite” rule for dogs. In essence, a cat gets one “free” unprovoked bite or attack before an owner can be held liable.

This is because cats are considered naturally roaming animals that are not dangerous when unprovoked. While cat experts recommend keeping cats indoors, there is no legal “duty of care” in California to do so.2

Nor is there a duty to restrain a cat if it has never bitten or attacked anyone when unprovoked.

But once the owner knows that the cat is vicious or prone to hurting people willfully, that animal is considered to have "mischievous" or “dangerous propensities.”3

An owner of a mischievous animal or one with dangerous propensities becomes "strictly liable" for damages caused when the animal injures others.

2. “Strict liability” for injuries caused by a dangerous animal

California's “strict liability” law makes pet owners responsible for unprovoked injuries caused by an animal with dangerous propensities. It does not matter how carefully the owner guards or restrains the animal.4

So once a cat's owner knows – or should have known -- that a cat is dangerous, the owner has an absolute “duty of care” in California to prevent it from harming others.

3. How do I prove a cat was dangerous?

Proving a cat has bitten before is not always easy.

Ways a plaintiff might prove a cat is dangerous can include (but are not limited to):

  • A letter or email the plaintiff wrote to the cat's owner about a previous attack; or
  • Testimony of neighbors.

Furthermore, many municipal ordinances require physicians to report cat bites to the local public health agency.5

If there is a report on file, it will be strong evidence that the cat was dangerous. 

The owner may also be liable under California's “negligence per se” law if he or she violated one or more local animal control regulations.

4. Cat bites and California's “negligence per se” law

Normally to recover damages in a civil lawsuit, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant was negligent under California law.6

Because of California's “one-bite” rule for cat bites, however, an owner is normally not negligent the first time a cat bites someone.

However, under California's “negligence per se” law, a defendant is presumed to be negligent if:

  • The defendant violates a law or ordinance designed to prevent injury, and
  • As a result, the defendant is injured.7

Example:

Rabies is a virus that infects the central nervous system, causing brain disease and ultimately death.8

Los Angeles Health Code 10.20.220 requires a rabies vaccination for most cats over four months old.

If a cat owner fails to vaccinate his or her cat and, as a result, the cat bites someone and gives the person rabies, this could amount to negligence per se -- even if the cat had never bitten anyone before.

By failing to vaccinate the cat for rabies, the owner makes him- or herself negligent "per se."

Ginger cat baring its teeth
Cat saliva carries dangerous bacteria that can be transmitted during a bite

5. Damages for cat bites in California

Cat bites can cause serious infections and even death if not promptly treated.

Damages recoverable for cat bite injuries in California can include:

  • Medical bills,
  • Scarring,
  • Lost wages, and
  • Pain and suffering.

6. Can I get punitive damages in a cat bite lawsuit?

Generally, punitive damages will not be recoverable in a cat bite case. Punitive damages are only recoverable when someone has acted with “oppression, fraud, or malice.”9

“Malice” (the most likely of these to apply in a cat bite suit) means:

  • Conduct which is intended to cause injury, or 
  • Despicable conduct carried on with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.10

As anyone with a cat can tell you, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a cat injure someone on purpose.

Conceivably a cat owner could be on the hook for punitive damages if he or she was exceptionally reckless – for instance by leaving a toddler alone with an aggressive cat that has attacked people in the past.

7. Can a veterinarian or groomer sue for a cat bite?

In general, no. Under California's “Veterinarian's Rule,” people who work with animals assume the risk that the animal might bite them.

But if the owner knows an animal is dangerous and fails to warn someone who works with the animal, the owner will become liable for injuries the animal causes.11

The worker must be given notice so that he can take precautions or decline to work with a dangerous animal.

8. Do I have to report a cat bite?

California Penal Code 398 PC requires a cat owner to provide proof of the cat's vaccinations to a bite victim within 48 hours of the bite. Violation of PC 398 is an infraction punishable by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars ($100).

Moreover, some municipalities require physicians who treat cat bites to file a report with the local public health agency.

But even if the law does not require reporting, cat bite victims may wish to report the attack, especially if it was not provoked. Unprovoked cat bites are more likely to be caused by rabies than provoked attacks.

Will the cat have to be quarantined after a bite?

In general, yes. Reporting will subject the animal to quarantine (usually for 10 days) so that it can be watched for signs of rabies.

Animals may be able to be quarantined at the owner's home.If the animal is healthy, it will be returned to (or allowed to remain with) its owner. If the cat has rabies, it will, unfortunately, have to be euthanized..12

The good news is that 90% of rabies cases in the United States are caused by wildlife.13

By reporting a bite, however, a victim can make sure. It can also provide evidence in the event the cat should bite the victim (or someone else) again.

9. Why are cat bites so dangerous?

Cat saliva contains bacteria that can cause serious infections in humans.

Unlike dog bites, which tend to be shallow, cat bites cause deep puncture wounds. These punctures seal quickly, trapping the bacteria under the victim's skin.14

The bacteria can spread through the surrounding tissues, causing cellulitis or septicemia ("blood poisoning"). Children, the elderly, and people who are ill or immunosuppressed are particularly vulnerable.15

A Mayo Clinic study showed that in a three-year period, one in three cat bite victims had to be hospitalized. Of those hospitalized, two-thirds required surgery.16

human hand covered in cat scratches
Cat scratches can cause "cat-scratch fever"

Cat-scratch disease a/k/a cat-scratch fever

Cat scratches can also cause bacterial infections. A cat's sharp, curved nails can penetrate deep into the human skin, depositing bacteria into the blood.

One disease that can be caused is cat-scratch disease (CSD) also known as “cat-scratch fever.” CSD is caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae. B. henselae is common in cats, though most cats who carry it show no signs of illness.17

Humans infected with CSD will develop symptoms three to 14 days after the skin is broken. The skin will feel warm and painful and appears swollen and red with round, raised lesions. The victim may also have a fever, headache, poor appetite, and exhaustion. 

CSD can occasionally cause serious complications of the brain, eyes, heart, or other internal organs. They most frequently affect children younger than five and people with weakened immune systems. Although rare, these complications often require intensive treatment.18

10. What should I do if a cat bites me?

If you are bitten or scratched by a cat you should immediately and thoroughly wash the wound for five minutes with mild soap and water. Do not use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide19

It is also highly recommended that you seek the attention of a physician if:

  • You do not know the cat's vaccination status, or
  • It has been more than five years since your last tetanus shot.20

The doctor will most likely order several days of antibiotics and possibly a tetanus shot.

Injured by a cat in California? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you were seriously injured by a cat bite or scratch, we invite you to call our personal injury lawyers us for a free consultation. We also invite you to visit our page on cat bite lawsuits in Nevada.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM or complete the form on this page to discuss possible compensation for your medical bills and pain and suffering.


Legal references:

  1. Thomas v. Stenberg (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 654.
  2. See, e.g., San Francisco Health Code 41.12(a). "It shall be unlawful for the owner or guardian of any animal, other than a domestic cat, to permit said animal to run at large within the City and County..."
  3. Sea Horse Ranch, Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 446.
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 462. Strict Liability for Injury Caused by Domestic Animal With Dangerous Propensities—Essential Factual Elements.
  5. See, e.g., Los Angeles County Health Code 11.04.200.
  6. CACI 400; California Civil Code 1714(a).
  7. California Evidence Code 669; CACI 418(a).
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rabies.
  9. California Civil Code 3294.
  10. California Civil Code 3294(c)(1).
  11. Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112.
  12. See, e.g., County of Los Angeles Rabies Control Manual.
  13. See same.
  14. VCA Hospitals, Wounds - Cat Bite Injuries to Humans.
  15. Same.
  16. Mayo Clinic, When Cats Bite: 1 in 3 Patients Bitten in Hand Hospitalized, Infections Common.
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cat-Scratch Disease.
  18. Same.
  19. Web MD, Animal and Human Bites - Home Treatment.
  20. Family Doctor, Cat and Dog Bites.

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