We Asked a Cat Expert if Your Cat Could Kill You

Frank J. M. Verstraete knows everything there is to know about the teeth and jaws of cats. If anyone can figure this out, it's him.

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May 15 2015, 8:15pm

Image via Flickr user Frank Boston

The New York State Assembly is now considering a bill that would make it the first state to ban the declawing of cats. It's a move that would do away with a cruel practice, but place the wellbeing of cats above the well-established desire of humans not to be clawed. But nothing stops a bill in its tracks quite like the possibility that the politicians who voted for it will be blamed for the untimely deaths of their constituents.

After all, including claws, cats are armed with a couple dozen sharp parts that can break human skin, and they can inflict a fair amount of pain. But could your cat kill you?

Well, cats have killed people through infection, and, tragically, through falling asleep on the face of a baby, but could a cat ever emerge victorious in mortal combat against a healthy human? According to Brian Palmer at Slate, it doesn't appear to have happened in recorded history, but just because something hasn't happened doesn't mean it can't.

Assuming the teeth and jaws would play an important role in a cat attempting to take out a human, I got on the phone with Frank J. M. Verstraete, professor of surgical and radiological sciences at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Since Verstraete literally wrote the book on maxloifacial surgery for cats, it seemed like he could tell me a little about a determined cat's chances of delivering a lethal bite.

Related: For less lethal cat action, watch Lil Bub &Friendz

VICE: What can science tell us about a cat's ability to kill a human?
Frank J. M. Verstraete: There is very limited published information. In anticipation of your call, I also talked to a colleague about it, and he said the same thing. He was also not aware of any published material.

Cats kill other animals though. What can we learn from that?
When they eat a mouse, they basically kill it, and swallow it whole.

Amazing, but that doesn't speak to a cat's ability to do much damage to trachea, or the walls of a large blood vessel in a human.
Correct. Unlike a dog, who can cause a lot of crushing damage, they can't do that because they don't have crushing teeth. They have big canine teeth that are there for apprehending the prey, and they have rows of molars for cutting meat.

When you say "cutting" meat, you mean like literally slicing it?
Their upper-fourth molar, and their lower first molar are teeth that provide shearing action. Those are used for cutting meat. They don't have any teeth that are flat-topped for crushing like we have.

I checked on my cat, and those are way back in her mouth. Can she do any damage with the little teeth in front?
Cats have evolved in the sense that their incisors are very very small, and not really very functional. They have kept their disproportionally large canines.

But how hard can they bite? It takes a few pounds to crush a human trachea.
We don't know what the bite force is. I'm not aware of any published material about that. It's probably well below that of a dog. Dogs have a much more prominent temporal muscle. That's the muscle used for closing the mouth. If you look at the temporal fossa, which is where the muscle lies, it's much shallower.

Can we use any other factors to deduce how hard they bite?
Tooth fractures are very common in dogs, and not nearly as common in cats. That would be an indirect indication that they're not really biting hard.

But what about working the jaw back and forth, like when you try and chew through a tough steak?
All cats, be it a lion, or a cheetah, or a domestic cat, have a jaw joint that is pretty much cylindrical. It functions as a hinge, so they can open and close their mouths, but they cannot perform sideways movement. A cat's teeth interdigitate very precisely. If they're off by a millimeter or two, they can no longer close their mouths. In a case of dislocation, the teeth at the back of the mouth catch one another, which is why a cat will sit there with an open jaw.

That sounds terrible for the cat. Can you help when that happens?
It requires anesthesia, and then manipulation by a person who knows what he's doing.

Sounds like it's a "no" to the whole killing a human thing. Is there any chance a cat would try?
Domestication has been going on so long that I don't think cats retain much of a killing instinct, other than watching bird feeders and the occasional rodent.

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