What to Know About a Cat Bite or Scratch

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on October 28, 2022
6 min read

Cats are revered around the world. They are small, cute domestic pets that are extremely popular. They provide emotional support and are used in some forms of animal therapy. That being said, sometimes this lovable pet can unexpectedly attack you or a loved one. A cat bite/cat scratch can be serious. 

Cats can create wounds with their claws or teeth. They can scratch or bite you if they feel threatened or spooked. Their razor-like sharp nails and teeth can cut deep and potentially damage ligaments, tendons, or other tissues. These scratches or bites are serious because they can potentially cause infection with a variety of bacteria or parasites.

A cat has sharp, long teeth that can cause deep puncture wounds. Their claws can make deep scratches. Both can lead to bleeding. 

An infection could possibly occur within 12 to 24 hours. This is especially true if your hand is involved. The area could become swollen, red, and painful. 

Though indoor domestic and outdoor cats are mostly vaccinated against particular bacteria and infections, stray cats and some domestic ones can still harbor a range of bacteria. A scratch that causes an infection can be bad, especially for people who are immunocompromised or have conditions like diabetes.

Infection is the result of cat bites that medical providers are most concerned about. If they are left untreated, a potential infection can lead to tissue loss, scarring, or possible sepsis. Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacteriosis, or Pasteurella can all be introduced into your body by a cat bite.  

Cat bite symptoms include.

  • Elevated fever: A fever means that your body could be fighting an infection.
  • Tender/pain: The bite area could be painful, especially when it is touched.
  • Redness and swelling: The skin or tissues surrounding the bite may look larger, puffy, and red, and they may feel warm to the touch.
  • Red streaks: Red lumps or streaks could indicate a more serious infection.
  • Pus: White, yellow, or other colored thick fluid could possibly drain from the area and smell bad.

Additional possible symptoms could include swollen lymph nodes and fatigue.

You are likely wondering how to treat a cat bite and how severe such a might could be. If you contract some types of infection after a cat scratches or bites you, the first signs of infection may appear within a few hours. Your hands, tendons, and joints are at the highest risk. 

In general, treatment to aid in the cate bite healing process prior to such an infection includes the following:

  • Clean your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after dealing with your wound to help lower the risk of infection.
  • Apply a dry sterile dressing to your wound and change it as needed.
  • If the wound bleeds, put a clean, soft cloth on the area. Firmly apply pressure until the bleeding has stopped. That could take as much as five minutes. Do not remove the pressure to look at the wound during the five minutes.  

Apply an antibiotic cream if you have some in your house.

Go to see your doctor within eight hours to decrease the risk of infection. Most often, cat wounds are left open to heal. This makes cleaning easier and decreases the risk of infection. 

More than likely, your prescribed cat scratch treatment will include:

  • Cleaning your wound and putting antibiotic cream on it
  • Prescribing an antibiotic if there is a high risk of infection
  • If your tetanus vaccine is expired, giving you a booster shot
  • Possibly using stitches

It is important to act quickly if you get a cat injury. The sooner you contact your doctor, the sooner you can decrease your infection risk. If you can, find the animal that scratched you. Sometimes, the animal may need to be monitored for rabies. Do not risk contracting it yourself because rabies is fatal in both humans and other animals. Instead, call the animal control office or animal warden nearest you. If the cat cannot be found, or if the animal is a high-risk species and you were attacked without warning, you may receive a series of rabies shots. 

Take notice if you develop flu-like symptoms after your bite. These include headache, fatigue, fever, swollen glands, or loss of appetite. Your healthcare provider may prescribe either an oral antibiotic or a topical cream/ointment to treat the infection. Follow all instructions for medications given by your doctor.

Monitor your wound carefully for proper cat scratch care. Immediately contact your medical provider if:

  • There are additional signs of infection around the wound like redness, warmth, swelling, or foul-smelling drainage 
  • You develop a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • You have flu-like symptoms like chills, fever, headache, or swollen lymph nodes
  • You have bleeding that will not stop, even after 5 minutes of continuous pressure
  • You have any trouble moving a body part near the site of your scratch/bite wound

After getting stabilized by your doctor, change your dressing several times daily and continue to monitor for infection.

Cat biting or scratching is not uncommon. There are numerous reasons why a cat may start attacking unprovoked. It is not always done out of aggression. A cat is born a natural predator. Actions like pouncing, clawing, or biting is a part of their aggressive play. This natural instinct is important to the cat, but there must be lines drawn between play and other, aggressive behaviors. 

Usually, cats bite when they are communicating, especially if they want you to stop something you are doing. Cats know the difference between lovable handling and irritating contact. As a pet owner, it is important to learn when your cat is communicating. This will, however, be difficult in the case of unknown cats.  

When unusual or new problems affect your cat, especially behavioral changes such as aggressive scratching and biting, an underlying illness could be the cause. This could be from distress due to fleas or mites, unseen wounds, hyperthyroidism, or other hormone imbalances. 

The cat may also suffer from hyperesthesia. Hyperesthesia is an unusual condition characterized by exaggerated bursts of repetitive grooming or aggressive behavior in some cats. It is prevalent among Abyssinian, Burmese, and Siamese cats. Such behavior can also involve self-mutilation and sometimes seizures.

Do everything within your power to stop animal scratches and bites. If you choose to get a cat for your family, choose a breed that is friendly and not likely to be a danger to you or any kids. Everyone in the home should learn to treat animals gently and respect boundaries. You and your family should not approach strange animals, nor should you provoke or tease them.

Keep your cat’s claws trimmed. Trimming should be done routinely to prevent ingrown nails. Declawing is not necessary, but trimming may be enough to prevent pain and infection following a random attack. 

Also, when a cat is scratching or biting, redirect their attention. Give your cat an interactive toy to play with. This can prevent them from attacking family members. Also, you can point them toward a scratching post as an outlet for their behavior. This corrects the action and gives them an appropriate behavioral outlet.

If your cat is still demonstrating aggressive behavior, make an appointment to see the veterinarian. They will question you about your cat’s behavior, the environment of your home, the circumstances leading to the behavior, and how you can correct it. Some circumstances may require bloodwork to identify any condition that can lead to aggressive behavior. If they cannot help, you may be referred to a specialist.