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Why Do Cat Scratches Itch? 4 Common Reasons (Vet Answer)

Written by: Dr. Sharon Butzke DVM (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on February 1, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat scratching owner

Why Do Cat Scratches Itch? 4 Common Reasons (Vet Answer)


Dr. Sharon Butzke Photo


Dr. Sharon Butzke

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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It is not uncommon for cat owners to get scratched from time to time, whether by accident during play or as a result of an irritated swat. Most of us know how important it is to clean the area right away to prevent infection.

Even when cleaned properly, cat scratches often feel itchy. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • A normal response to a disruption of the skin barrier
  • Part of the healing process
  • An indication of infection
  • Exacerbated by an allergy to cats

This article will discuss each of these in more detail.

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The 4 Vet-Approved Reasons a Cat Scratch Might Itch

1. Skin Barrier Disruption

Anything that breaks the skin, including a cat scratch, can cause our cells to release inflammatory molecules1. These molecules activate specific nerve fibers, which produce a sensation of itchiness. This is a normal process but the degree of itch can vary from person to person. People with pre-existing skin conditions (e.g., eczema) may react more intensely than people with healthy skin.

Tempting as it may be, it is important not to scratch at the area! This may actually increase the itchy sensation through something called the “itch-scratch” cycle2.

Covering the wound with a bandage may be helpful, and your doctor may be able to recommend a topical cream or ointment to provide some relief.

2. Normal Part of Skin Healing

When our skin is injured, healing occurs according to the following pathway:

  • Any bleeding is stopped by specialized cells called platelets; they form clots, which dry into scabs
  • Underneath scabs, an inflammatory response occurs and white blood cells arrive to clean the wound by “eating” debris and bacteria
  • New blood vessels are created, cells called fibroblasts produce collagen, and the edges of the wound are pulled together (contraction)
  • The collagen is remodeled and the scab falls off, revealing either new skin or a scar (depending on the size of the wound)

Some of these stages naturally produce an itchy sensation. For example, we have all experienced the itch associated with a scab! Try to resist the urge to scratch, however, as this may delay healing and increase the likelihood of scarring.

Image Credit: AJR_photo, Shutterstock

3. Bacterial Infection

Cats’ nails often harbor bacteria that can contaminate wounds resulting from scratch injuries.

Signs of an infected wound include:
  • Itchiness
  • Tenderness
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Discharge (particularly if it is yellow, green, or smells foul)

If you are concerned that a wound resulting from a cat scratch may be infected, seek medical attention promptly.

Some cats carry a specific bacteria called Bartonella henselae which, in rare cases, can lead to cat scratch disease3.

4. Allergy to Cats

Allergies to domestic cats are reportedly becoming more common, particularly in the Western world. These allergies are currently thought to be caused by a specific protein (Fel d 1)4, which is primarily secreted from:

  • Feline sebaceous glands (which secrete sebum, a skin moisturizer, into hair follicles)
  • Feline salivary glands (which secrete saliva)

If you are allergic to cats and happen to be scratched by one, you will likely feel itchier than a person who is not allergic to cats. In addition to standard wound care, ask your doctor if an antihistamine medication might also be helpful. This can either be taken by mouth or applied directly to the wound as a topical cream or ointment.

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Is There Anything I Can Do to Help Manage My Cat Allergy?

People who are allergic to cats and come into contact with them regularly (at home and/or work) may wish to consult their doctor about strategies to help reduce their allergy symptoms.

These might include:
  • Washing hands and clothes after interacting with cats
  • Not letting your cat(s) sleep in your bedroom
  • Taking antihistamine medication as needed
  • Gradual desensitization (e.g., allergy injections, oral immunotherapy)

Purina has developed a very unique cat food that may help reduce the allergy-causing potential of cats who eat it, but this should not be considered a guaranteed fix. Always talk to your veterinarian before changing your cat’s diet.

Certain breeds may be less likely to cause allergic reactions than others, but there is no such thing as a truly “hypoallergenic” cat. Every person’s immune system is unique, so it is a good idea to spend time with a cat you are considering bringing into your home (to make sure they do not trigger allergy symptoms) before making a commitment.

wound from cat bites and scratches with blood on it drying up
Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock

How Can I Protect Myself from Cat Scratches?

Here are some things you can do to reduce your risk of being scratched by a cat:

  • Trim your cat’s nails regularly to keep them short; consult this guide for tips on how to make it a fear-free experience
  • Do not encourage your kitten or cat to play with your hands (especially if you have children); redirect play behavior toward toys
  • Avoid petting your cat in areas they are sensitive about (for example, some cats do not enjoy having their belly touched)
  • If your cat is sick or injured and needs to be transported to a veterinary clinic, carefully pick them up with thick gloves, a towel, or a blanket instead of your bare hands

Please note that declawing is NOT recommended!

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To summarize, it is common for cat scratches to feel itchy. This may be nothing to worry about, especially if you are allergic to cats, but it can also be a sign of infection.

If you are scratched by a cat, wash the area immediately and thoroughly with soap and water. Monitor for signs of infection (redness, swelling, discharge) and seek medical attention right away if you have any concerns.

Featured Image Credit: Anna Kraynova, Shutterstock

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