Can You Get Rabies From a Cat Scratch?

You can get rabies from a cat scratch, but this is extremely rare. Most rabies transmissions happen when someone is bitten by an infected animal.

Rabies is a preventable but fatal nervous system disease that is transmitted in the saliva of infected mammals. A scratch will only transmit the rabies virus if infected saliva or other infectious material gets into the wound. 

A cat scratch can also cause other conditions such as cat scratch fever, MRSA, and other bacterial infections.

In this article, you’ll learn about rabies transmission from cat scratches and a few other infections that cat scratches and bites might cause. You’ll also find advice on how to avoid getting sick from a cat scratch.

Why Are Cat Scratches Dangerous?

Most cat scratches will not cause disease. In some cases, however, a cat's claws can transmit certain diseases or the scratch can become infected.

If you're scratched by a cat, it's important to clean the wound promptly with soap and warm water to decrease your risk of developing an infection. You can also add an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandage. 

Keep an eye out for signs of infection, such as:

  • Swelling and redness around the scratch
  • Red streaks around the scratch
  • Pus
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills

What Is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that is transmitted in the saliva of infected animals. It is almost always fatal. The virus infects the central nervous system and causes death in two to 10 days.

In the United States, widespread vaccination of domestic animals has greatly reduced the probability that you will get rabies from an animal such as a dog or a cat. Most cases of rabies in the United States occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks. 

If you’re bitten by an animal that looks like it might be sick, you should call your healthcare provider and discuss starting treatments right away. If the animal has an unknown vaccination status, it's important to have it isolated for 10 days so it can be watched for signs of a rabies infection. You will only need to start treatment if the animal shows signs of infection.

Cats are not common carriers of the rabies virus. In the United States, an average of 280 cats are diagnosed with the disease each year, but the majority of infections in human beings are caused by bats or domestic dogs encountered overseas.

What Are Symptoms of  Rabies?

Early symptoms of rabies include flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, and weakness. People who are in the early stages of the disease may also experience a tingling sensation at the site of the bite. 

As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive salivation
  • Stiff neck
  • Agitation
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations

People with rabies may also experience a fear of water.

What Are The Chances of Getting Rabies From a Cat?

You are not likely to get rabies from a cat. In the United States, there has only been one confirmed case of a cat transmitting the rabies virus to a human being. This incident happened in 1975.

How Is Rabies Treated?

There is no standard medical treatment for rabies. A small number of people have survived rabies with aggressive hospital support, but once symptoms appear, survival remains unlikely even with prompt medical treatment.

Rabies is a preventable disease. When administered correctly, rabies post exposure prophylaxis is nearly 100% effective in preventing illness and death. This is why it's important to seek medical attention immediately after you've been bitten by a rabid animal.

In the United States, cats are more likely than dogs to get rabies. It’s recommended that they receive rabies vaccinations.

What Are Other Cat-Scratch Infections?

A cat scratch can transmit a number of other infections. These infections are possible even from your own cat, and from cats kept exclusively indoors.

Cat-Scratch Disease

Cat-scratch disease (a.k.a. cat scratch fever) is caused by Bartonella henselae, a bacteria your cat picks up from fleas. A feline passes it on to you by scratching you, biting, licking a wound you might have, or, in rare cases, sharing fleas that infect you directly.

Cat-scratch disease is not common. Research published in Emerging Infectious Diseases estimated that each year about 12,000 outpatients are diagnosed with cat-scratch disease in the United States, and about 500 inpatients are hospitalized for the disease. Considering how often cats scratch, that's a very low rate, so it’s not something you need to worry about.

When the disease is passed to humans, it’s usually through feral cats or infected kittens. These kittens usually show no signs of illness despite being infected by the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

Humans infected by cats may develop a red bump nearby the scratch. Lymph nodes may become tender or swollen as well. These symptoms can appear about three to 14 days after exposure.

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

Cat-scratch disease skin lesion
Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor / Getty Images

Some people develop:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle and joint pain

Bartonella henselae can cause a skin infection known as bacillary angiomatosis. Symptoms usually go away on their own in about a month. In some cases, you’ll need to be treated with antibiotics.

Occasionally, this condition becomes more serious. People who are immunocompromised, especially those with HIV, are more likely to develop complications. Severe symptoms may include skin lesions and inflammation of multiple organs, including:

  • Brain
  • Bone marrow
  • Lymph nodes
  • Spleen
  • Liver
  • Lungs

Bacillary angiomatosis can be fatal to immunocompromised people.

Cats vs. Dogs

Cat bites are often more worrisome than dog bites. While dogs may damage your skin more, cats make deeper puncture wounds. That means that cat bites are more likely to become infected than dog bites.


MRSA, the drug-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus, causes severe skin infections as well as heart, lung, and bone infections.

Your pets can pass MRSA on to you if they have the bacteria. There’s also the chance that a cat may cause the infection by scratching or nipping you.

You naturally have MRSA and other bacteria on your skin. If your cat breaks your skin, that bacteria can get into the open wound and create an infection.

You might also pass the infection on to your cat, and once a cat has been infected, it can pass the bacteria back to you after you’ve recovered.

Other Bacterial Infections

Other bacteria can be passed to you if your cat bites you. Common types include:

  • Pasteurella multocida: This causes cellulitis, signs of which include skin redness, swelling, and possible fever or chills.
  • Staphylococcus aureus: This is a type of staph infection that causes serious skin problems and could lead to sepsis, when the infection gets into your blood.
  • Strep infections: This includes Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria that causes strep throat.

Serious cat bites are typically treated with antibiotics. Intravenous antibiotics are often given at the first sign that the bite looks infected. Because bacteria from cat bites can quickly cause problems, you should see your healthcare provider right away.

How Can I Prevent Getting Cat-Scratch Infections?

You have a lot of options for preventing infection and protecting yourself if you’re bitten or scratched.

Act right away to prevent infection:

  • Seek medical attention for all cat bites. They’re often deeper than you think.
  • Wash out any cat bites or scratches under running water with soap. This is especially important if your cat seemed unusually aggressive or if an animal you don’t know attacked you.

To protect yourself and your family:

  • 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 indoors and away from other cats.
  • Be careful about letting kittens near anyone who’s immunocompromised.


It is possible to get rabies from a cat scratch, but it is extremely unlikely. Most cases of rabies in the United States are caused by a bite from a bat or a domestic dog encountered while traveling overseas.

Still, it is best to exercise caution whenever you are bitten or scratched by any animal, including your own. Cats can also transmit cat-scratch disease and bacterial infections including MRSA.

Making sure your cat is healthy will reduce the risk that a scratch or nip will cause you illness. If injuries happen, take them seriously. Always have bites looked at, and watch scratches for signs of infection.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Megan Coffee, MD
Megan Coffee, MD, PhD, is a clinician specializing in infectious disease research and an attending clinical assistant professor of medicine.