By David F. Kramer
Getting scratched by a cat can be more than just painful—the wounds can bleed, sting, swell, become infected, and, in some cases, make us sick. Minor cat scratches usually can be treated at home, but certain wounds may require special care and attention.
Like many animal doctors, Los Angeles-based holistic veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney has dealt with his share of aggressive cats and is well acquainted with the damage they can cause with a swipe of the paw. A cat’s claws are generally sharper than those of a dog and are more likely to cause significant trauma, Mahaney explains. The greater the trauma, the greater the potential for swelling, exposure to the blood supply, and chance of infection, he adds.
According to Dr. Matthew Levy, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, there are factors to consider immediately following a cat scratch. “Some things to consider include wound location, wound depth, considerations regarding the cat itself, and medical factors about the person who was scratched,” he advises.
Treating Cat Scratches
When treating superficial scratches, it’s reasonable to wash the wound with soap and water, Levy says. “If the wound is bleeding, apply pressure with a clean, dry gauze pad,” he says. “If the bleeding doesn’t stop despite holding pressure, then medical attention should be sought.”
Wounds to the hands and feet can be more prone to infection, Levy warns, and scratches to the face or other areas of the body can cause cosmetic damage in the form of scarring. A scratch to the eye needs immediate care. The risk for infection is higher for people with weakened or compromised immune systems, Levy says.
An over-the-counter antibiotic cream can be applied and the wound covered with a dry, sterile dressing until it heals, Levy says. It’s crucial to keep an eye on the progression of the wound, he adds, and watch out for warning signs that it’s time to call your doctor.
According to Levy, signs of an infected wound include changes around the wound site, increased redness, warmth, swelling, tenderness, pain with movement, or pus drainage. Signs of a generalized body infection include fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, and swollen glands. Swollen glands (lymph nodes) that develop within a week involving an area of the body that was scratched can be an indication of a bacterial infection.
If an unknown or feral cat scratches you, Levy recommends using the same first aid treatment, but also enlisting the help of animal control or your local health department. Depending on the severity of the scratch and whether it was accompanied by a bite, the animal may need to be identified and quarantined or tested for signs of disease, such as rabies. If the animal can’t be captured, your treating physician might recommend a round of rabies prophylaxis (antibody and vaccine injections) as a preventative measure. If you haven’t had a tetanus update in more than 10 years, your doctor might also opt give you a booster shot, Levy says.
Other Risks Associated With Cat Scratches
According to Mahaney, one of the most serious risks associated with cat scratches is cat-scratch disease (CSD), also referred to as cat-scratch fever. “Cat-scratch disease is caused by a type of bacteria called Bartonella,” Mahaney describes. “The bacteria is transmitted to cats from the bite of an infected flea [or through flea feces]. Humans can contract CSD from the bite or scratch of a Bartonella-infected cat” or if the cat licks a person’s wounds.
Flea feces containing Bartonella can end up under a cat’s nails, Mahaney explains, and be transmitted when a scratch occurs. Once Bartonella infects a cat, it will circulate throughout the body via the bloodstream and end up in the saliva, and can be transmitted via a bite as well.
The symptoms of cat-scratch disease can manifest about three to 14 days after an infected cat bites or scratches a person hard enough to break the skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to showing signs of infection at the site of the wound, a person with cat-scratch disease may also experience fever, fatigue, and decreased appetite.
“In humans, CSD can cause pain and redness at the scratch site, [bumps around the wound], local lymph node swelling, and fever,” Mahaney says.
An estimated 12,000 people are diagnosed with cat-scratch each year, and 500 are hospitalized, the CDC reports. According to Mahaney, if untreated, CSD can cause enlargement of the spleen, thickening of the heart valve, encephalitis (inflammation of the membranes that surrounding the brain), and other ailments.
To prevent cat scratches from turning into a potentially serious medical issue, there are some simple steps you can take at home, Mahaney says. “Using veterinarian-recommended flea and tick control (topical or oral medications), along with good housekeeping habits (vacuuming carpeting, upholstery, and washing human bedding every seven days), can help to keep down flea populations, and reduce the likelihood that Bartonella bacteria will transmit into your cats.”