A cat scratch on a finger, hand, arm or face will become itchy. Just a quick swipe of your cat’s claws could lead to cuts, bleeding, itchiness, stinging, puffiness, and bacterial infection. The difference between a minor scratch that will quickly heal 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.
All cat scratches itch a lot because this is how wounds and abrasions heal. An infection, such as Bartonella henselae (cat scratch disease), can also cause the skin to become itchy. Other infections that make the skin itch include tetanus, cellulitis, ringworm, and toxoplasmosis. An allergy to cats will also intensify itchiness following a scratch.
We will look at how human skin reacts to a cat scratch, and what determines the severity and healing time of the wound. We’ll then look at the most common skin infections and diseases transmitted from cats.
Table of Contents:
Why Are Cat Scratches So Itchy?
Most cat scratches cause surface-level injuries, and the body will automatically start repairing itself. However, your body does not consider the damage significant enough to release pain-reducing endorphins.
According to The British Journal of Dermatology, the brain processes itching similarly to pain.
Itching is considered low intensity. Unless the itching becomes actively painful, the brain will acknowledge the discomfort but ignore it. In most cases, the itching will only last for a day or two.
In some cases, it will take much longer to pass due to a bacterial or fungal infection. Others experience sustained itchiness due to an allergic reaction.
Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology explains how cats are second only to dust mites as a cause of human allergies.
If you are allergic to cats, a scratch will cause intense itching. The surface area of the skin will redden.
You may also experience streaming from the eyes and sneezing. In some cases, the area surrounding the scratched skin may break out in hives.
If you are experiencing symptoms following a cat scratch, consider whether you may have developed an infection.
Your cat should be immunized against anything too worrying. All the same, it will be helpful to recognize the symptoms of an infection.
Bartonella Henselae (Cat Scratch Disease)
Bartonella henselae is the most common explanation for itching after a cat scratch. This condition is known as, “cat scratch disease” or CSD.
Bartonella henselae in cats is usually caused by fleas. When the cat scratches itself to relieve itching, the bacteria is trapped under the claws. It can also travel into cat saliva. When a cat licks its paws to groom, the bacteria start to multiply.
Cats rarely show any reaction to Bartonella henselae, passing it on unwittingly to humans through scratches.
The scratch will start to itch naturally, as the skin repairs itself. CSD can manifest later, sometimes as long as 14 days after the event. The itching will intensify, and the skin may swell. You may experience fever and lethargy.
Kittens were responsible for the vast majority of 1,200 CSD diagnoses profiled by The American Journal of Diseases in Children. Young cats are more susceptible to disease, and far likelier to scratch during play.
Left alone, CSD will eventually run its course. If the itching and other side effects are particularly uncomfortable, antibiotics will resolve the problem.
Tetanus is a bacterial infection that is usually passed on by animal bites or scratches. Thankfully, it is also commonly vaccinated against. A tetanus shot will remain effective for ten years.
Tetanus is commonly known as ‘lockjaw.’ This is because of one of the most prominent side effects. Tetanus bacteria attack the nervous system, mainly around the neck and jaw. Moving these body parts becomes increasingly difficult, which can restrict breathing.
Tetanus will also cause stiffness throughout the body. In cats, the legs are particularly affected. The Swiss Archive for Veterinary Science reviewed three cases of cats with lameness due to tetanus. All three cats recovered fully with the aid of drugs.
If you have a cat, it is advisable to protect yourself against tetanus. Scratches and bites will happen. Get a booster every five to ten years. If you are infected due to a lack of protection, antibiotics will be required.
If a cat scratches hard enough to break the skin, cellulitis becomes a risk. This is a bacterial infection that enters the body through cuts.
In addition to significant itching, cellulitis will cause the skin to redden and swell. A rash will quickly form that feels hot to the touch.
Cellulitis is a result of the Pasteurella multocida bacteria. As The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery explains, symptoms usually present themselves within hours of the scratch.
Left untreated, cellulitis can become problematic, even life-threatening. It can lead to MRSA in some cases. If the itching from a cat scratch turns into a rash, you need an urgent course of antibiotics.
Ringworm is a contagious fungal infection that lives within a cat’s skin and nails. Any contact with a cat can pass ringworm onto humans, including scratches. A cat may accidentally scratch you while addressing ringworm. It will itch constantly, leading to flailing legs.
Ringworm will be impossible to miss, either in you or your cat. The infection is defined by dry, scabby skin. This manifests as circular markings. This is what gives the infection its name. Ringworm is not a parasite and does not involve worms of any kind.
Aside from unsightliness, ringworm can cause significant itching. If you notice the physical symptoms of your ringworm on your skin, it should be treated ASAP. As the skin is so dry, scratching this itch risks creating open wounds. Waiting too long can also leave scars.
Ringworm is common and easily treated. Both you and your cat will need a topical ointment. This will resolve the itching and kill the fungus.
Ringworm is also contagious. It’s advisable to quarantine yourself and your cat until recovered. You will also need to wash everything you came into contact with, including clothes and furniture. Failure to do so will cause a recurrence of ringworm and the associated itching.
There is a slim chance of being infected with toxoplasmosis from a cat scratch. We say slim, because the disease is not carried in cat saliva. Simply licking paws will transfer the bacteria to a cat’s claws. Cats shed the bacteria that cause this infection through feces.
According to Veterinary Parasitology, most infections involve handling contaminated waste.
A dirty litter tray means this waste can be trapped in a cat’s claws. If the cat scratches and breaks the skin, the infection can be passed on. This is unlikely, but not impossible.
Most cats show no symptoms with toxoplasmosis. If your cat does have the condition, it may display run a fever, become lethargic, and lose appetite.
Be mindful of toxoplasmosis risk if you are pregnant or have children. Toxoplasmosis can cause a range of health concerns in children and fetuses, including blindness.
Bubonic plague is caused by a strain of bacteria called yersinia pestis. Thankfully, the condition is rare in the western world.
Cats can catch the plague by eating infected mice or being bitten by fleas. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, it can be passed on to humans via scratching.
The bubonic plague will cause itching at the site of the scratch. Caught early, the plague can be treated with antibiotics.
Treating the Cause of the Itchiness
If you have been scratched by your cat, wash the area immediately with soapy water. Spend at least two minutes thoroughly cleaning.
If the scratch was superficial, this should be sufficient treatment. You may wish to apply an antibiotic ointment as a precaution.
If the wound is still bleeding after washing, hold a gauze against the wound and apply a bandage once the bleeding subsides. Check the wound, and change your dressing, daily.
If you notice swelling or pus in and around the wound, then an infection has occurred. You will need a course of antibiotics.
Itching after a cat scratch is normal. It’s just a side effect of your skin healing. Only be cautious if the itching lasts more than a few days. This, accompanied by swelling, suggests that you may have an infection.