Can a Cat Scratch Be Dangerous?

The cat, all wide eyes and deep meows, is good at demanding our attention. This attention can—though very rarely—be a problem for our health. A cat can bring home more than a mouse.

Nearly 32 million U.S. households have cats. Sometimes one of these cats has a human disease. Sometimes they scratch or bite. Sometimes even a friendly bite might get us sick.

Cat-Scratch Disease

Cat-scratch disease is, not surprisingly, caused by cat scratches. It's also caused by bites or licking a wound and maybe even fleas.

It's a rare disease—especially given how often cats scratch—but about 22,000 cases are reported in the US each year. It can be passed to humans usually through infected kittens, who who typically show no sign of illness but are nonetheless infected by the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

When humans are infected by cats, they may develop a red bump at the wound site and a tender, swollen lymph node nearby about seven to 12 days later, but it can take up to two months after the bite or scratch. Some people develop:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle and joint pain

Symptoms usually go away on their own in about a month, but some cases have to be treated with antibiotics.

In some situations, the disease does not resolve quickly or more serious symptoms develop.

This can be a serious disease in those who are immunocompromised, especially those with HIV. The same bacteria, Bartonella henselae, can lead to bacillary angiomatosis (causing many lesions or bumps over the body) and bacillary peliosis (liver/spleen disease), which are very serious infections.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Lesion of cat-scratch disease
Lesion of cat-scratch disease. Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor / Getty Images

Cat Bite Infections

Cat bites can be very dangerous because of the potential bacteria that can be transmitted. Cat bites are more likely to become infected than dog bites, even though dogs do more outward damage. The bite is often a deep puncture wound.

The common bacteria involved are Pasteurella multocida, as well as Staphylococcus aureus and Strep infections, like Streptococcus pyogenes.

Serious cat bites are typically treated with antibiotics, and intravenous antibiotics are often given at the first sign that the bite looks infected. Because cat bites (particularly on the hand and arm) can progress rapidly and cause quite a bit of damage, you should not wait to seek medical care if you have been bitten by a cat.

Staph Aureus: MRSA

Staph aureus bacteria, especially MRSA (the drug-resistant strain), has been spreading, causing skin infections and worse (including heart, lung, and bone infections).

Cats are certainly not to blame, but they can be a potential source of infection or re-infection. In one study, 7.6% of cats had picked up MRSA from the person they lived with, who had an active or recent infection.

There's also the chance that a cat may create a MRSA infection from a nip or a scratch. The bacteria on your own skin, which includes MRSA and other Staph bacteria, can spread into the wound the cat made and create an infection.


Rabies is serious. Until 2004, no person survived an infection with rabies (without being vaccinated prior to symptoms). It is still a fatal infection.

Cats need to be up to date on their rabies vaccines. They can be infected by other animals, even bats and in areas thought to be rabies-free.

In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to have rabies. A bite or scratch (because cats lick their paws) can lead to rabies.

If you're exposed, wash out the wound with soap for at least 5 minutes and seek medical attention the same day for vaccinations, antibiotics, and immunoglobulin as needed.

Prevention and Protection

You have a lot of options for preventing infection and for protecting your health if you are bitten or scratched.

If you're bitten or scratched, act right away to prevent infection.

  • Seek medical attention for all non-superficial cat bites—they're often deeper than you think.
  • Wash out any cat bites/scratches for 5 minutes under running water with soap, especially if the bite was unprovoked or from an unknown animal.
  • Seek medical attention immediately for bites that may be from a rabid cat.

To protect yourself and your family from rabies:

  • Keep your cat's vaccines up to date.
  • Don't let a cat lick a wound.
  • Don't let a cat lick your food or your face.
  • Wash your hands before eating.
  • Cover up sandboxes to keep cats out.
  • Keep an eye on children playing in the dirt where there are cats.
  • Consider keeping your cat(s) indoors and away from other cats.
  • Be careful having kittens near anyone who is immunocompromised.
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Article Sources
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