First Aid for an Infected Cat Scratch

Published September 30, 2019
tabby cat biting and scratching owner's hand

If you live or work around cats, it's inevitable that you'll get scratched one day, even if it's just accidentally. Taking proper care of a cat scratch is important as it's not uncommon for a simple scratch to become infected.

How to Care For a Cat Scratch

The first step in dealing with a cat scratch is determining whether it can be treated at home or if you should seek out professional care.

Cat Scratches Requiring a Professional

If a cat scratches you deeply enough where stitches are required, you should seek immediate medical attention. Consulting with a medical professional is also warranted if you have any medical conditions that make you more susceptible to infections such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer, or if you're on drugs that weaken immunity like steroids or chemotherapy. Scratches to sensitive areas, such as your eyes, should be checked out by a doctor as well as areas where you would not want to have a scar, such as anywhere on your face.

Scratches by Feral or Unknown Cats

In addition to medical attention for yourself, you should work with a professional if the cat that scratched you was a feral or stray cat. If there is any risk that cat might have rabies, contact your local animal control or city or county health department. The cat may need to be tested for rabies, assuming you have possession of the cat or it can be caught. Otherwise you may be faced with the prospect of having a series of four rabies vaccine injections which can be a painful process to endure.

Cat Scratch Home Treatment

Dr. Vilma Ruddock states that, "Minor scratches can be treated at home." For mild scratches that are not deep enough for stitches, treatment can be done at home with a basic first aid kit.

  1. Wash the area with mild soap and under running water. Make sure you wash it gently to keep the area from getting worse.
  2. If there is bleeding, use some gauze or a clean, sterile cloth to put pressure on the wound for a few minutes.
  3. Use an OTC antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin on the wound and keep the wound bandaged using gauze or a bandage.
  4. Check the area regularly and apply ointment as needed. You also want to check it regularly to look for signs of infection.
Siberian Cat Scratching His Owner

Signs the Scratch Needs Attention

If you follow all the procedures to clean and care for the wound and notice it is not getting better, it's possible it has become infected. According to Dr. Ruddock, between 20 and 50% of cat scratches will become infected. If you notice any of the following symptoms, it's time to see your doctor.

  • Red, inflamed skin around the scratched area that appears to be getting worse or "red streaks extending from the wound"
  • Scratched area feels "pain and warmth"
  • Irritations on the skin such as bumps, blisters, lesions, sores, rashes or "pus oozing from the wound"
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Lack of appetite

Possible Transmission of Cat Scratch Disease

Dr. Ruddock notes too that you may see "signs of infection together with swollen nodes in the region of the scratch, such as in the neck, armpit or groin, joint pain, and flu-like symptoms." These symptoms can be indicative of cat scratch disease. "This is caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae which many cats carry and can lead to complications in humans."

Can a Cat Transmit Parasites Through a Scratch?

Dr. Ruddock says another concern is the possible transmission of parasites through a scratch. It's possible for larvae from worms can get into a scratch if the cat's nails have come into contact with infected feces. "Larvae from roundworms, for example, might migrate from the wound under the person's skin (cutaneous larva migrans) and cause symptoms." Another parasite is toxoplasmosis from a cat's feces. "The parasite might be transferred to the scratch from infected feces on the cat's paws or if the cat licks the wound."

Cat Scratches and Tetanus Shots

Regarding a tetanus shot, Dr. Ruddock reports that, "If your last tetanus shot was more than 10 years ago, you should get one. A doctor might suggest a tetanus booster even if your last shot was less than 10 years ago, depending on your circumstances." In addition with a scratch from a stray cat, "you might also need rabies prophylaxis because this cat likely did not receive any vaccinations." This is why many lines of work in the animal care field, such as veterinary and shelter work, require a tetanus shot for their employees and volunteers because of the increased risk of getting scratched by a cat.

When to See a Medical Professional

There are several signs that should be treated right away by a doctor. Dr. Ruddock lists them:

  • "Deeper wounds are at greater risk to get infected and leads to complications." You can tell a scratch is deeper than a minor scratch if there is a lot of bleeding.
  • If you experience red, irritated skin, tenderness in the scratch area, or if your pain "lasts more than a week" even if you believe it's a superficial wound
  • If you start to develop any of the symptoms noted above for toxoplasmosis or cat scratch disease
  • If you have a medical condition or are taking medication that weakens your immune system because of the higher risk of infection

Caring for a Cat Scratch Wound

If you have a minor scratch, you should treat it at home immediately to prevent infection. Deeper wounds should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible to prevent the development of more serious diseases. It's important to recognize the signs of infection and get a tetanus booster even 10 years, especially if you work or volunteer with cats.

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First Aid for an Infected Cat Scratch