Can a Cat Scratch Be Dangerous?

Cats are good at demanding attention. Their mouthing and pawing can often be a mix of both adorable and annoying. But in rare instances, they can also be dangerous to your health.

Even indoor cats that are well cared for can bring bacteria and viruses into your home. A bite or a scratch may mean that those germs are passed on to you, causing illness.

In this article, you’ll learn about a few infections that cats may cause. You’ll also find advice on how to avoid getting sick from a cat.

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 too much 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 the 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.

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 doctor right away.

MRSA

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’s infected, it can pass the bacteria back to you after you’ve recovered.

Recap

Most cat scratches are harmless, but there’s a risk of problems if your cat is carrying bacteria or fleas that harbor it. Bites are more likely to cause an infection than scratches. See a doctor if you’re bitten.

If you have HIV or are otherwise immunocompromised, get medical attention immediately for scratches or bites to avoid complications.

Rabies

Vaccines and medication have lowered concerns about rabies, a virus passed on to humans by animal bites. Untreated, rabies can cause symptoms related to your nervous system such as headaches, muscle spams, paralysis, and confusion. It can also be fatal.

Your chances of getting rabies from a cat, though, are very low. If you’re bitten by a cat that looks like it might be sick, you should call your doctor and discuss starting treatments right away. Mention any symptoms of rabies you may be experiencing, such as fever or burning at the injury site.

If you don’t know whether a cat has been vaccinated against rabies, it’s recommended that you isolate it for 10 days and watch it for signs of a rabies infection. You would only need to start treatment if the cat showed signs of infection.

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

Prevention and Protection

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.

Summary

Cats are animals. They may act unpredictably and strike out at you either playfully or aggressively. That means you should be prepared for a possible scratch or bite.

Cats can pass on cat-scratch disease, bacterial infections including MRSA, and even rabies.

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.

7 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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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bartonella quintana infection.

  4. Luciani L, El Baroudi Y, Prudent E, Raoult D, Fournier PE. Bartonella infections diagnosed in the French reference center, 2014-2019, and focus on infections in the immunocompromised. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2021;40(11):2407-2410. doi:10.1007/s10096-021-04244-z

  5. Esposito S, Picciolli I, Semino M, Principi N. Dog and cat bite-associated infections in children. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2013;32(8):971-976. doi:10.1007/s10096-013-1840-x

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  7. Ma X, Monroe BP, Cleaton JM, et al. Public veterinary medicine: public health: rabies surveillance in the United States during 2018. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2020;256(2):195-208. doi:10.2460/javma.256.2.195

By Megan Coffee, MD
Megan Coffee, MD, PhD, is a clinician specializing in infectious disease research and an attending clinical assistant professor of medicine.