Will I be okay after being scratched by a feral cat?

Someone asked on Quora.com: Will I be okay after being scratched by a feral cat? The answer to this question depends on which country you live. In the UK, rabies has been eliminated. In the USA it has not. This simple fact alters the way a person responds to being scratched by a feral cat.

I have answered the question on the basis that you’re living in the UK and many European countries1 but if you live in the USA then you have to throw into the equation the possibility of rabies which, on my reading of the information, is rare. In the US, more than 250 rabid cats are reported (confirmed?) annually out of 50 million feral cats which is 0.0005%. Trolls say rabies from cats is not rare in the US.

If a person in the US is scratched by a feral cat he or she may report it or accept it. If it’s reported it would end the life of the cat if the authorities could find him/her.

Kim Jong-un scratching post
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Kim Jong-un scratching post! I prefer looking at this rather than an inflamed cat scratch.

Putting aside rabies for the moment, the key to the answer is to watch the site of the scratch (or bite) vigilantly for an infection. You can wash the area and apply antibacterial ointment but there is no substitute to watching the bite area to see if any inflammation develops.

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If it does, you have to take antibiotics quickly. They work quickly too. This might mean an urgent trip to your doctor or perhaps to the local hospital. In the USA it would be a visit to urgent care or the emergency room. In the UK it is A&E.


However, my personal experience is that if you have some antibiotics of the correct type in the house you can self-administer them. I found that after four tablets at one per day the swelling around the bite or scratch does down and disappears. In other words for me it did not take a full course provided you get in fast and nip the infection in the bud. Speed is the vital aspect of treatment. The picture shows how a cat bite infection starts.

Marking the area of inflammation from a cat bite

Marking the area of inflammation from a cat bite

It will depend on the person and the cat I guess so my experience may not be entirely typical. However, it’s the depositing of bacteria under the skin which can cause a nasty infection.

You just can’t ignore it. It’s a case of watch and wait. Sometimes the body fixes it without help from drugs and/or the amount of bacteria deposited is insufficient to cause an infection.

Examples of lack of vigilance – no criticism intended

I know of two examples of where the scratched or bitten person did nothing. The first concerns a neighbour. She was an old lady. A stray cat entered her apartment and bit her. She did not watch for an infection. An infection took hold badly and her whole arm was swollen. She ended up in hospital as it became very hard to deal with it. She died in hospital not because of the infection but because she got bed sores and the hospital treatment was poor.

The second example is on Quora.com. Wendi Brown uploaded a gruesome photograph of her husband’s left arm after hospital treatment. He was deeply scratched by a feral cat. He did not deal with it. Wendi says that it may have been infected with Pasteurella multocida and possibly from her husband: staphylococcus and streptococcus on the skin.

Her husband almost lost his arm from ‘compartment syndrome’. It looks horrendous. It did not have to end like that because cat bites and scratches are not bad injuries if dealt with promptly and sensibly early on. The bad stories about cat scratches are bad because of human carelessness. I am not being critical. I am simply stating facts. There are many volunteers in TNR programs who get scratched from time to time. They deal with the injury without any drama. It’s okay and manageable provided you are vigilant.

P.S. Cat scratch disease or fever is a particular condition caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae. This disease is in addition to the bacterial infection discussed above. It causes redness and can take some time to resolved. It can be a serious illness.

P.P.S. I have barely mentioned rabies. This is because it is very rare and the question, I’m sure, relates to typical feral cat scratches. However, the rabies virus can be transmitted from a cat’s claw to a person because cats lick their paws and claws and the saliva carries the virus. Obviously, rabies is an entirely different kettle of fish. In the UK you can presume that the cat has not got rabies. In America it is a different story. It is wise to see a doctor as a precaution.

Note 1: Many countries in Europe have been designated rabies-free jurisdictions: Austria, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Iceland and the Republic of Cyprus.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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4 Responses

  1. FRANCES A DANNA says:

    You are spot on Michael. “Vigilance” is the key when monitoring a cat bite or scratch. Most infections heal on their own in an uncompromised immune system. However, when the circumstances and contributing factors fall against our favor, an infection results requiring antibiotic therapy. The telltale signs are redness, swelling and heat which radiates from the wound site, enlarging over a period of hours to a day or two. This is the signal to seek treatment immediately.

  2. GaillenT says:

    Unless, of course, the cat was in the last 2 weeks of infectious rabies virus before it died from rabies. A rabid cat that licked its paws, leaving a fresh deposit of live rabies virus on its claws. (Or was infected with any of the 3-dozen other deadly and incurable diseases being spread by feral cats to humans today. In particular, those that are already listed as bio-terrorism agents.)

    Then whomsoever reads your advice and fails to get the $3,000 to $15,000 post-exposure rabies treatment will die an excruciating death by rabies from following your sage and educated advice…..remainder is rude and therefore deleted…(Admin)

    • Michael Broad says:

      Despite the fact that your comment was rude and insulting, I have published it in an amended form because it does contain useful information. I wrote the article on the basis that the person lived in the UK which is where I live.

      However, I do realise that rabies does exist in the USA and therefore it does change the response to a scratch from a feral cat. I have therefore put this into the article.

      In the future, if you wish to make a point, even a valid one, please do it politely because then you might get a nice response. However, if you persist in being rude all the time your comment will not be published normally.

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