Why Do Cat Scratches Itch and Swell?

Cats love to scratch. They especially love to scratch walls, posts, and furniture. But why?

Scratching is second nature to a cat. It is a cat’s way of getting rid of build-up in its claws and its way of marking territory. This habit is also a form of play. This habit is never meant to harm you. However, when you have a cat as a pet, it is inevitable that you will get scratched every now and then!

Sometimes these abrasions are superficial and others are deep cuts. Nonetheless, whatever the degree of injury, it will typically itch and swell.

cat scratching a wall

Swelling and Itching

cat's scratch on human hand and cat in the background

Cuts usually itch and swell. This is a way for the body to combat any possible infection that may be caused by the wound. Nevertheless, the itching and swelling that ensues after a cat scratch may indicate something more serious.

When you are wounded, your body produces endorphins to combat the pain caused by the injury. Sometimes you experience more pain when the wound is shallow than when it is deep.

The reason for this is that when it is shallow, there is a possibility that your wound was not considered significant enough, biologically speaking, for your body to produce endorphins to combat the pain.

  • Swelling

Swelling often occurs after cat scratches. In most cases it is a normal response to the injury. In others it may indicate a hypersensitivity to the proteins on a cat’s claws. In still other cases, it may be due to an infection caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae, which is found in a cat’s flea. This flea’s organism finds its way onto the cat’s claws when the cat scratches itself, which in turn spreads the bacteria through accidental or intentional scratching. This infection is referred to as cat scratch disease.

You may say, “That can’t be! My cat is very clean and I bathe him regularly.” According to studies, even if you bathe and clean your cat daily, there is a 40% chance he still carries the bacteria responsible for cat scratch disease.

Aside from the swelling of the scratch,  an accompanying swelling of your lymph nodes can occur in the area nearest the injury. Cat-scratch disease is responsible for this complication and cat owners are advised to seek medical attention immediately should they observe this.

  • Itching

Your bodily response may also be triggered by the aforementioned hypersensitivity, which is an allergic reaction to the scrape. This explains why so many cat scratches can be itchy. In many cases, this itch is accompanied by the appearance of red spots surrounding the skin where the injury is located.


Cat-Scratch Disease (CSD) may sound very serious, but it is not necessarily as bad as it sounds. However, you are still strongly encouraged to see a doctor if you notice the symptoms mentioned earlier. And you guessed right; the culprit of this disease is your fur ball’s fleas!

When a cat scratches itself, its claws collect flea muck. So if during playtime with your cat she accidentally scratches you, the muck will become embedded in your scratch wound.

If the cut is shallow or superficial, the chance of infection is remote. But when it goes deep, then the possibility of CSD is high.

CSD can be further intensified by your cat licking the wound or biting you playfully near the scratch. In any case, treat your wound immediately. Washing with soap and water is absolutely necessary!

There are many symptoms if you have contracted CSD but the main indicators that you have to watch out for are the following: Your lesions begin to swell and itch and you get a fever and a severe headache. Swelling of the local lymph nodes is also something to be on the lookout for.

wound from cat bite and scratch

What to do when your cat scratches you?

  • Rinse

Rinse your wound immediately under clean running water and use a mild soap. It is advisable to use cold water so as not to worsen the bleeding. It will also help stop swelling and aid in the relief of itching. This will also prevent the spread of cat scratch infection.

  • Superficial vs. Deep Wound

After washing, assess the wound to see if it is superficial or deep. If it’s a superficial wound, after washing, dry it with a clean cloth and leave it uncovered to let the scratch dry faster.

If the laceration is deep, dry the wound then apply an antiseptic solution. You may also apply an antibiotic cream to prevent bacteria from further infecting the abrasion.

  • Cover

For deep scratches, you need to cover the injury with clean gauze. Apply a pressure dressing if the bleeding is persistent.

  • Identify

It is also important to know the cat that scratched you. If the cat is owned by someone you know, then just get the details of its latest visits to the veterinarian. At least you’ll have a degree of certainty as to the cat’s background and its vaccination history.

If the cat is a stray, then you have to take all the precautionary measures of caring for your wound and it is wise to seek immediate medical attention. Scratches, whether superficial or deep, can infect you with tetanus, which can be deadly if left untreated. Rabies is also a concern. Though rabies is typically spread by bites, let your physician know of your injury, nonetheless, as rabies is a fatal disease and your physician may not want you to take any chances.

A final note: If you or anyone in your household is very young, very old or suffers from any disease process that leads to deficiencies of the immune system, a cat’s scratch can be especially dangerous. In these cases, always be sure to let a physician know when serious scratches occur.

Cat Scratch Prevention

  • Gentle Play

When playing with your cat, it is wise not to rough it up with your pet. Cats get easily excited and instinctively draw out their sharp claws.

It’s best to use play extensions on toys (like little fishing poles) so as not to expose your hand to clawing or scratching. A ball of yarn tied to a stick or clawing toys that extend are recommended.

  • Cat Claw Trimming

It is ideal to trim your cat’s nails regularly. This way, you minimize accidents. In addition, your feline may learn to relax when its claws are on your body, so it doesn’t instinctively act out of fear and embed sharp talons into your skin!

Claw trimming is different from declawing. Declawing is not advisable and is illegal in some countries. Declawing effectively amputates a cat’s toes at the first knuckle. As such, it is widely considered inhumane.

  • Scratching Posts

A scratching post is a substitute for gentle play and will be a very welcome addition to your cat’s playpen. These posts are beneficial in 3 ways.

First, these posts serve as a way of cleaning your cat’s claws. The post will reduce flea organisms embedded in your cat’s nails. Second, your cat will scratch the post instead of your furniture. Third, reaching for the post will be a form of exercise for your furry friend.

  • Cat Claw Covers

Small plastic covers for feline claws are commonly available online and at many pet supply retailers. These protective covers are applied with a special adhesive and are designed to be semi-permanent, releasing after one to four weeks after application. While the application of these claw covers can take some getting used to (for both humans and cats!), the safety afforded by these simple little tools can be invaluable for some households.

  • Ban Those Fleas!

Preventing fleas will not stop your cat from scratching you but it will lessen the risk of you getting CSD. So banning those fleas is a must!

When you control the spread of fleas in your cat, the risk of contracting a disease is reduced. Fleas also cause harm to your cat, often leading to fatal anemias if infestations are uncontrolled.

To prevent illness, flea prevention is the first step. Many safe and effective products are available to prevent and treat fleas. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.

Caring for a pet cat is both a reward and a risk. Reward, because cats are a source of joy and emotional support. Cats provide loyalty and love in return for your TLC. It is also a risk because of the possible diseases your cat may bring you into contact with. Some of these diseases could be fatal to you and your cat.

The bottom line is that cat owners need to be responsible for their cats’ health to minimize the possibility of injury and illness to the humans in your household.

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