Why Do Cat Scratches Itch and Swell?

When a cat scratches you, the wound will likely become inflamed and itchy. While these symptoms typically start as a natural response to any new wound, there is very real concern you should be aware of.

Cat claws are often home to bacteria that could be harmful and sometimes even deadly to humans.

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

Understanding the Healing Process

Your body has its own methods for taking care of and healing wounds. Cuts usually itch and swell. This is a way for the body to combat any possible infection that may be caused by the wound.

These signs of the healing process are generally normal and not cause for alarm. But don’t ignore what could enter the wound, as infection can occur. The itching and swelling that ensues after a cat scratch may indicate something more serious.

  • Bleeding

Bleeding helps to flush out the wound and to provide much-needed defense mechanisms to the injury.

  • Pain

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

Initial swelling often occurs after cat scratches. In most cases, it is a normal response to the injury. This inflammation tells you that white blood cells have arrived to fight off any possible infection.

In other cases, swelling may indicate 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.

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.

Aside from the swelling of the scratch, as mentioned, 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

The itchy sensation from a scratch could be from a number of factors but usually comes down to nerves telling your brain there is an irritation needing investigation.

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.

Scratching during the healing process can slow things down and potentially increase risk by introducing new bacteria from your fingernails into the wound. So, avoiding scratching however satisfying it may be is one way to prevent potential complications.

Cat Scratch Disease (CSD)

You’ve probably heard of the term cat scratch fever, but you may not know it’s a very serious disease that could land you in the hospital for a lengthy and expensive stay. On average, CDC estimates that around 12,000 cases happen in the US every year(1).

Cat-Scratch Disease (CSD) is caused by the introduction of a bacteria called Bartonella Henselae. This type of bacteria most commonly comes from fleas and lives in the mouths and blood of cats.

It can also come from fleas’ droppings. The bacteria could be introduced through cat scratches or directly when a cat licks an open wound.

When a cat scratches itself, its claws collect flea muck. So if during playtime with your cat it 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!

The unfortunate reality is, your body may have difficulty fending off infection caused by this type of bacteria. This could make medical care necessary. Although CSD is definitely not contagious from person to person.

Rare and life-threatening complications are associated with CSD. This infection can potentially affect the brain, heart or any number of internal organs.

If you suspect any of these major complications have arisen you’ll need to have someone take you to a nearby emergency room immediately.                                

To emphasize the severity of this infection, know that it is a bacteria relative to trench fever and Carrion’s disease – both caused by the Bartonella genus of bacteria.

“My cat is healthy, so my scratch won’t get infected.”

Sorry to say that while intuitive, this belief simply isn’t true. According to studies, 40% of all cats have had the bacteria responsible for CSD at some point in their lives.

Most cats will not seem ill due to hiding their symptoms. They may not even be ill at all.

Even the healthiest of cats could be a carrier of bacteria or disease while suffering no ailments or symptoms. One stray flea would likely lead to your cat scratching and possibly picking up bacteria on their claws. Why take a chance with a disease this serious?

wound from cat bite and scratch

What to Do When a Cat Scratches or Bites You?

  • Rinse and Clean

The first step is to remember how important it is to properly clean a fresh wound.

First, thoroughly flush the wound with running water. 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. Cold water will also help stop swelling and aid in the relief of itching. This will also prevent the spread of cat scratch infection.

After rinsing, use hydrogen peroxide, iodine or antibacterial soap to clean the wound and kill bacteria.

If in doubt, repeat the whole rinsing and cleaning process.

Most cat scratches do not result in CSD because people generally know to wash wounds.

  • 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.

  • Doctors

If you have a primary care physician, it is a good idea to contact them so you can tell them about the exposure and discuss a treatment plan if necessary. This is especially important if you have diabetes or are immunocompromised in any way.

Prescription medications and antibiotics may be necessary. A doctor could test for the disease, but as this bacteria grows slowly, a culture could take three weeks to confirm or deny the disease.

Symptoms of CSD to Monitor

There are many symptoms if you have contracted CSD such as minor redness, swelling, and itchiness which are all common symptoms of any skin wound. But the main indicators that you have to watch out for are the following: lesions, warm sensations, and pus around the cut.

If you do contract an infection, you may exhibit fever, lethargy, reduced appetite, and headaches.

The nearest lymph node to the wound could become inflamed and painful as the infection spreads. As most wounds caused by cats occur on hands and arms, the nearest lymph node would be in the armpit.

If any of these symptoms occur, you’ll need to contact your doctor right away.

Symptoms can take anywhere from three days to two weeks to appear.

Treatment of Cat Scratch Disease

If and when infection takes hold, treatment of CSD can range from the body’s natural healing to weeks of hospitalization, depending on the severity of the infection and the presence of any secondary complications within the body.

For this reason, it is important to see a doctor so you can determine the level of treatment needed. In many cases, the body can handle this type of infection without help. But often, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to help shorten the duration of symptoms and prevent more significant concerns.

In other cases, a person could be hospitalized for multiple weeks for supportive care and intravenous (IV) medications.

Cat Scratch Disease Prevention

Keeping your cats flea-free is the most important factor to avoid this disease. Year-round flea preventative medication for all cats is recommended, especially if your cat goes outside. You can also do the following preventive measures:

  • Gentle Play

Frequently interacting with your cats is a good way to teach them that we are friends and not something to fear – further reducing the risk of wounds and increasing the risk of happiness!

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. Doing this, you minimize accidents and reduce the risk of an open wound occurring, as well.

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.

Claw trimming, on the other hand, can be done easily with a regular human nail trimmer.

  • 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, same as that of cat trees.

  • 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!

Any presence of fleas should be immediately addressed with your veterinarian and a prescription for a safe flea preventative will typically be the standard course of action.

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 on 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 including homemade products. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.

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

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.

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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