Cat Scratch Fever. Should You Be Concerned?


A cat scratch is a wound caused by a cat’s claw. Cat scratches can range from minor surface abrasions to deeper wounds that break the skin. Many cat owners have likely experienced a swipe of their cat’s paw at some point. Though most cat scratches are harmless, some people worry about the potential health implications of cat scratches. This article provides an overview of the potential risks of cat scratches and guidance on how to treat them. We will cover the signs of infection, the difference between minor and severe scratches, causes, at-risk groups, prevention tips, treatment options, home remedies, and when you should see a doctor. The goal is to address common concerns about cat scratches and help you respond appropriately if you or a loved one gets scratched.

Signs of Infection

A cat scratch or bite can lead to an infection, especially if it breaks the skin. Some signs of an infection developing include:

Redness – The area around the scratch or bite becomes red and inflamed looking. This is a sign of inflammation as the body responds to bacteria.

Swelling – The skin around the wound swells up as inflammation increases. This is the body’s response to contain the infection.

Pus – A yellow or white liquid called pus may start leaking from the wound. This is a mixture of dead cells, bacteria, and proteins.

Red streaks – Red lines or streaks spreading out from the wound can appear. This indicates an infection spreading through the lymph channels.

Fever – A fever over 100.4°F (38°C) may develop as the immune system reacts to an infection. Fevers are a sign the infection is becoming systemic.

If any of these signs of infection appear after a cat scratch, it needs medical attention. Left untreated, the infection can spread deeper into tissues and the bloodstream (Cleveland Clinic).

Minor vs Severe

Most cat scratches are minor and do not lead to serious complications. According to research from Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the risk of getting cat scratch disease from a scratch is around 0.005% ( The scratch may be red, swollen and irritated, but will generally heal on its own within 1-2 weeks.

However, in some cases, cat scratches can cause more severe infections. Bacteria from a cat’s mouth called Bartonella henselae can enter the wound and lead to cat scratch disease (also known as cat scratch fever). Symptoms of cat scratch disease include fever, fatigue, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes near the scratch. While most cases are mild, some can lead to more serious complications like encephalitis, endocarditis, or osteomyelitis. Immunocompromised individuals and children under 5 years old are at higher risk for severe infections.

If the scratch area shows signs of worsening redness, swelling, pus, red streaks, or you develop a fever, it’s important to see a doctor to get proper treatment. Cat scratches should be taken seriously, especially for high-risk groups. However, prompt medical care can effectively treat infections before they spread or become dangerous.


Cat scratch disease is caused by a bacteria called Bartonella henselae. This bacteria is found in the blood of cats, especially kittens, and can be transmitted through scratches or bites. According to the CDC, up to 30% of cats carry B. henselae in their blood. The bacteria enters the human body through breaks in the skin caused by a cat’s claws or teeth. If the wound is not properly cleaned and cared for, it can become infected.

Those with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to developing cat scratch disease after being scratched or bitten by a cat. This includes people with HIV/AIDS, those undergoing chemotherapy, people who take immunosuppressant medications like steroids, and the elderly. Improper wound care and compromised immunity allow the bacteria to multiply and cause infection.

At-Risk Groups

Certain groups of people are at higher risk of developing complications from cat scratches. These include:

Young children – Children under the age of 5 years have underdeveloped immune systems and are more susceptible to infections from cat scratches. Complications like fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes are more common in young children (CDC).

Elderly – Older adults over the age of 65 have weakened immune systems and may not be able to fight off infection from a cat scratch as easily. They are at higher risk of enlarged lymph nodes, fever, and fatigue (Cleveland Clinic).

Immunocompromised – People with weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, organ transplants or other conditions have a harder time fighting infections. They are at much higher risk of developing serious complications like encephalitis from a cat scratch (Cornell).


There are several steps you can take to help prevent infection from a cat scratch. First, it’s important to regularly trim your cat’s claws to keep them blunt and less likely to cause deep scratches (CDC). Any time you get a scratch or bite from a cat, promptly wash the wound with soap and warm water. Be sure to watch for signs of infection, like redness, swelling, pain, and pus.

Getting your cat vaccinated against common bacteria like Bartonella henselae can also help prevent transmission of infection from scratches (CDC). There are some vaccines available for cats that may reduce the risk of humans contracting cat scratch disease. Talk to your veterinarian about the options.


For minor cat scratches, carefully wash the wound with soap and water to help prevent infection (CDC, 2022). Apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a bandage that is changed daily. Watch for signs of infection like redness, swelling, pus, and warmth around the scratch. Over-the-counter pain medication can help relieve discomfort.

If symptoms of infection develop, contact your doctor right away. Cat scratch disease is typically treated with antibiotics like azithromycin or doxycycline to eliminate the bacteria (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). For serious cases that cause extensive swelling or abscesses, medical care like draining the wound may be required (AAFP, 2011). Intravenous antibiotics are used for severe infections affecting the internal organs or central nervous system.

Proper wound care, early treatment with antibiotics, and seeking medical attention for concerning symptoms are key to successfully resolving cat scratches and preventing dangerous complications from infection.

Home Remedies

For minor cat scratches, there are several home remedies you can try to help heal the wound:

First, wash the wound with soap and warm water. This helps clean out any bacteria or debris in the scratch. Gently pat dry the area afterwards.

After cleaning, apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to the scratch. Antibiotic ointments prevent infection by killing bacteria and helping the wound heal faster. Cover with a bandage if needed.

To reduce swelling and discomfort, try elevating or resting the injured area. Keeping it raised above heart level will help minimize inflammation. Avoid using the limb or putting pressure on the scratch.

Make sure to keep the wound clean and change bandages daily if needed. Monitor for signs of infection like increasing redness, swelling, warmth, or pus. See a doctor if the scratch is not healing properly with home treatment.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if the cat scratch becomes infected. Signs of infection include fever, red streaks from the scratch, excessive redness, swelling, and pus. These are indications that the scratch has become infected and requires medical treatment.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should seek medical care if you experience:

  • Fever of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher
  • Red streaking from the wound
  • Swelling or redness that gets worse over 24-48 hours
  • Pus or cloudy drainage from the wound
  • Fatigue, headache, muscle/joint pain, or swollen lymph nodes

Seeing your doctor promptly can help diagnose and treat any potential infection before it spreads or gets worse. Even minor cat scratches can sometimes lead to complications like cat scratch disease, so it’s better to seek medical advice if you have any concerns.


In summary, most cat scratches are minor and will heal on their own without issue. However, it’s important to monitor for signs of infection, which can include redness, swelling, pus, fever, and lymph node swelling. If these symptoms develop, especially within 3-10 days of a cat scratch, contact your doctor, as antibiotics may be needed. Treatment for cat scratch disease is aimed at managing symptoms and watching for complications. Home remedies like cleaning the wound and applying antibiotic ointment can help prevent infection. While cat scratches can carry risks, taking proper precautions and watching for warning signs can help ensure a full recovery.

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