A cat scratch on a finger, hand, arm or face hurts a lot. Just a quick swipe of your cat’s claws can lead to cuts, bleeding, itchiness, stinging, puffiness, and bacterial infection. The core difference between a minor scratch and a painful infection often has little to do with the cut itself, but rather the state of the cat’s claws that inflicted the wound. Felines aren’t always as clean as we’d like to think.
All scratches from cats, regardless of their size and depth, can cause constant itchiness. You can get a bacterial infection such as cat scratch disease (CSD), tetanus or cellulitis. In rare cases, you can get rabies from a cat scratch. Don’t let your cat lick the wound, and do perform basic cat scratch first aid. Clean and sterilize the wound immediately to avoid medical complications.
This guide will look at how human skin reacts to a cat scratch and what determines the severity of the wound. We’ll then look at the most common infections and diseases transmitted from cats. Finally, we’ll provide basic care advice and prevention tips to keep you safe.
How Cat Scratches Affect the Skin
Cat scratches can be painful and even dangerous. This is due to the wound bleeding, stinging, swelling, and becoming infected. They can also make you feel physically sick. While the majority of scratches can be treated at home, some scratches require medical attention.
A cat’s claws are sharper than a dog’s claws. This is why a scratch from a cat can cause more damage and complications. The deeper the tear, the higher the likelihood of developing a bacterial infection.
Why Does a Cat Scratch Itch and Swell?
Cat scratches become itchy and swollen due to the trauma that has been created by tearing the skin. Pain and swelling usually accompany these sorts of injuries.
Where cat scratches can differ is the introduction of bacteria to the wound. The paws and claws of a cat are often filthy. Although cats seemingly live to groom, they use their feet for a lot of dirty work and daily necessities.
The most obvious is the use of paws to prepare litter tray space for restroom use followed by the covering of their poop and urine. Even the saliva in their mouths isn’t clean.
Although the penetration of a cat’s claws is painful, it is what is on the claws, rather than the claws themselves, that can cause damage and medical complications. The introduction of infection is what leads to the itchiness at the site of a feline’s scratch.
1) Claw Sharpness
The swiftness of a cat’s slap can cause damage. This is true if the claws happen to dig in and shred large chunks of skin. It is not unheard of for a cat to shred your skin aggressively while leaving you completely unaware of what’s happened until several moments later.
Most problems occur while playing and being held as cats can have volatile mood swings. The peaceful setting of playtime can quickly be overtaken by aggression.
One wrong position or move can cause your cat to lash out. Because cats are unable to tell us if something is painful, uncomfortable or unwanted, one way to get their point across is to lash out with a quick swipe across the hand, fingers, arm or face.
- Even the sweetest-natured cat can have an outburst from time to time. This is why you (or an expert) must trim your cat’s claws on a routine basis. The front claws are the most crucial as they are primarily the ones responsible for inflicting injury.
2) Location and Depth of the Wound
Where a cat scratches you, and the depth of the penetration, can be the difference between a mild and severe cut. If you have been scratched on the face or neck, it is paramount that your wounds are treated immediately and monitored carefully.
If the wounds are large gashes and the bleeding refuses to stop, you should seek medical attention. Not only is infection a strong possibility, but also blood loss and other medical complications.
If your cat’s claws managed to dig into your skin, you might have a series of visible marks. The hooking motion of your cat’s claws can result in severe damage to the flesh.
3) Personal Health
Your reaction and recovery will largely depend on your health. Although deep penetrating wounds and infection can happen to anyone, how your body responds is just as vital.
Children, seniors, and anyone with a pre-existing health issue that affects your immune system are most likely to experience harm. If your body does not heal well due to a disease or immune constricted ailment, you should think twice before owning a cat.
4) The Health of the Cat
In the same way that not every person is in the same health neither is every cat. The current health of your cat can determine how you react to a scratch and puncture.
A well-kept house cat with a litter tray that is cleaned regularly is less likely to carry bacteria and disease. This can naturally result in your scratches being minor and healing normally within days. A cat that lives primarily outdoors carries more health risks.
Common Diseases and Infections Caused by Cat Scratches
Scratches that become more serious can be the result of a disease or infection.
While most scratches are merely flesh wounds and will heal in time, wounds that become infected due to bacteria require medical treatment.
1) Cat Scratch Disease (CSD)
Cat scratch disease (Bartonella Henselae Infection) is a common bacterial infection that is transferred from cats to humans via a scratch, bite or the licking of an open flesh wound.
The symptoms and complications associated with CSD typically become apparent within 3-14 days after the initial contact. Swelling, redness, and pus-filled lesions may develop. The infected area may also feel warm and painful to the touch.
Other symptoms include:
- A headache
- Lack of appetite
The lymph nodes nearest to the infected area may become swollen and painful. Roughly 40% of all cats will carry CSD during their lives. Born from a bacteria known as Bartonella henselae, most infected cats display no sign of illness.
Although dire complications can occur in humans who are infected, these occurrences are rare. Young children (under 5) are the group most likely to fall victim to severe complications.
Issues may affect the brain, eyes, heart, and internal organs. Weakened immune health is often the trigger that can make CSD much worse for certain individuals.
Causing severe muscle spasms and lockjaw, tetanus is a severe yet preventable bacterial infection. Although quite rare due to a preventative vaccination, this condition has no known cure. Roughly 10-20% of all tetanus victims will succumb to the infection.
While commonly spread through a cut or open wound that comes in contact with the tetanus bacteria, a scratch or bite from a cat can introduce the same concerns. Although deep penetrating puncture wounds are the main risk, cats are capable of inflicting damage to the skin.
As the tetanus bacteria enter the body, symptoms will begin to become more apparent. In most cases, the signs of infection occur roughly one week after exposure, but it could take longer. Caused by the toxin from the bacteria, the symptom of a stiff jaw or lockjaw is the hallmark of this condition.
Other issues may include:
- A penetrating headache
- Muscle stiffness (jaw, arms, neck, legs, etc.)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Restlessness and behavior changes (irritability)
- Increased blood pressure
- Muscle spasms in the face
It has long been standard practice to receive a tetanus shot once every decade once you enter adulthood. While this precaution is wise, it becomes critical if you have cats.
Defined as a bacterial infection of the skin and the tissues beneath the skin, cellulitis can occur where the skin has been broken.
While Staphylococcus and Streptococcus are the two primary forms of bacteria responsible for cellulitis, a host of other bacteria can lead to this form of infection. Pasteurella multocida is mainly responsible for cellulitis due to a dog or cat scratch.
Symptoms may include:
- The warmth of the skin at the infected area
Primarily treated with antibiotics, cellulitis can impact people of all ages, but it is not contagious.
Caused by a virus found in the Rhabdoviridae family, rabies attacks and compromises the nervous system. One of the most well-known viral infections seen in both animals and humans, this condition is fatal if left untreated.
While animals such as foxes, skunks, raccoons, and bats are the known carriers of rabies, domestic dogs and cats can also fall victim. Cats are more likely to contract rabies than dogs. This is where cat scratches to humans can be more concerning.
Once exposed to rabies, the incubation time for a human can range from one week to one year. This is yet another reason why this condition can be so alarming. The general threat combined with a long waiting period can be taxing in its own right.
Although rabies is far less likely in a major city, if you live in open land in the countryside and often encounter wild animals, the likelihood of infection increases.
This goes for domestic pets as well as yourself. Sending domestic cats out to roam in an open countryside area can have dire consequences.
The symptoms of rabies include:
- A headache
- Decreased appetite
- General fatigue
- Pain and itching at the wound location
- Difficulty swallowing (foaming at the mouth)
- Inability to drink/fear or water
- Agitation and confusion
If you have been bitten by a feral cat (or any wild animal), seek immediate medical attention. While rabies is fatal without treatment, the virus can be prevented with the proper vaccination.
If you have been bitten by a cat that you fear may have rabies you can receive several doses of vaccination over a couple of weeks. This can prevent you from developing the disease.
How to Prevent Cat Scratches
Core prevention measures include:
- No rough play. If you engage your cat in this manner, you are asking for trouble. Most cats do not understand that it’s fun, but they do understand aggression. Be gentle with your cat, and they are more likely to be gentle with you.
- Never allow your cat to lick open wounds. If you have cuts, cover them up before handling.
- Never pet a feral cat. The risk of infection and disease is higher because you are dealing with a cat that lives off the land. It may not be in good health.
- Keep your cats in good health. This includes proper grooming (nail trimming) and flea control. The less your cat is scratching at fleas, the less likely they will be to scratch you accidentally. Vacuuming your home regularly can help to prevent flea infestations.
- Keep your cat indoors. You can eliminate a lot of the guesswork by keeping your cat inside your home. While this will not prevent a scratch, you will at least know where your cat has been and its daily routine.
How to Treat Cat Scratches
Whenever your cat scratches you, you need to stop what you are doing and treat your wound.
Here’s a quick step-by-step guide:
- Clean the area with antibacterial soap and water. If the cut is minor, clean the cut to eradicate germs and prevent infection.
- If the cut is an open wound and bleeding, apply gauze to the area. Apply pressure until the bleeding has ceased.
- Use a topical cream to medicate the wound and seal the cut.
- Seek medical attention for any cut that will not stop bleeding or is swelling unnaturally.
What Do You Do When a Cat Scratches Your Eye?
If a cat scratches your eye, you must rinse the area with clean water. This will flush out much of the debris and bacteria that may infect the wound.
Although plunging your head underwater with your eyes open is difficult it must be done to clean out the eye. Once you have taken these measures, you should get an urgent medical evaluation.
Most scratches from cats itch so much because your body is trying to fight off a bacterial infection. If you notice trauma to your skin, you should seek first aid ASAP. If you notice other symptoms, such as severe redness and swelling, you should see your doctor immediately.