Can a Cat Scratch Be Dangerous?

In This Article

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

There are a lot of cats. Nearly 32 million US 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 is spread commonly by kittens, who have no sign of illness but have the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

You may develop a red bump at the wound site and a tender, swollen lymph node nearby between about seven and twelve days later, but it can take up to 2 months after the bite or scratch. Some people develop:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle and joint pain

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

Sometimes, 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 are more likely to become infected than dog bites, even though dogs do more outward damage. The cat bite often leaves a deep puncture wound.

The common bacteria involved are Pasteurella multocida, as well as Staphylococcus Aureus and Strep infections, like Streptococcus pyogenes. Because of the high rate of infection, there is a good chance your doctor will want to give you antibiotics before an infection develops.

Staph Aureus: MRSA

Staph Aureus bacteria, especially MRSA (the drug-resistant strain), has been spreading, causing skin infections and worse (even 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.

This is important when someone in a household has MRSA, the whole family should decolonize (by using special cleansers and medications prescribed by their doctor) to eradicate MRSA from the household. It's important to not forget the cat when decolonizing the house. 

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

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.

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 lots of cats.
  • Be careful having kittens near anyone who is immunocompromised.

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, especially if the bite was unprovoked or from an unknown animal, for 5 minutes under running water with soap.
  • Seek medical attention immediately for bites that may be from a rabid cat.
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Article Sources
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  10. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies. Updated April 6, 2020.