Can Dogs Make You Sick? How Their Scratches May Spread Disease


Dog scratches can potentially transmit diseases to humans in some cases, though the risk is generally low for most people. However, individuals with compromised immune systems may be more susceptible. This content will provide an overview of the common diseases dogs can carry, how diseases are transmitted through scratches, risk factors, ways to prevent transmission, treating scratches, when to see a doctor, testing dogs, and protecting both humans and dogs.

Common Diseases Dogs Can Carry

While our canine companions provide endless love and joy, they unfortunately can carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans through scratches. Some of the most common diseases dogs may carry include:

  • Rabies – Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals and can be potentially fatal if left untreated. Infection often occurs from bites, but scratches can also transmit rabies if saliva enters the wound. According to the CDC, dogs account for nearly all rabies transmissions to humans in the United States. 1
  • dog receiving a rabies vaccine injection

  • Ringworm – Ringworm is a fungal skin infection. Dogs can carry the fungus and transmit it to humans through direct skin contact. Scratches that break the skin can allow the fungus to infect the wound. Ringworm causes a red, circular rash on the skin that can be itchy.
  • Leptospirosis – Leptospirosis is caused by bacteria that dogs can carry in their kidneys or urinary tract. Humans can contract leptospirosis through contact with infected urine or bodily fluids, either through scratches, bites, or by touching mucous membranes. It can lead to kidney or liver failure if untreated.

Other diseases dogs may potentially transmit through scratches include Capnocytophaga, MRSA, pasteurellosis, brucellosis, and salmonella. While not all scratches lead to infection, it is important to clean wounds thoroughly and be aware of risk factors and symptoms.

How Diseases Are Transmitted

Dogs can transmit diseases to humans through various means, including bites, scratches, saliva, and contact with urine or feces.

Dog bites that break the skin pose the highest risk of disease transmission. Bacteria from a dog’s mouth can enter the wound and cause infection. Dogs can carry and transmit bacteria such as Pasteurella, Capnocytophaga, and others that are not common in human mouths. These bacteria can cause localized infections or more serious systemic illness in some cases [1].

Scratches can also transmit disease, but the risk is lower than with bites unless the scratch penetrates deep into the skin. Light surface scratches likely pose minimal risk. However, deeper scratches that break the skin surface allow bacteria from a dog’s nails or skin to enter the wound [2].

microscope view of bacteria in a wound from dog scratch

A dog’s saliva can also transmit illnesses like rabies if introduced into open wounds. Simple licking of intact human skin poses very little disease risk. However, if the dog’s saliva enters the eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound, illnesses like rabies may result [3].

Additionally, contact with a dog’s urine and feces can spread illnesses like campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, or parasitic infections if the urine or feces then come into contact with the human mouth [2].

Overall, open wounds are the main gateway for disease transmission from dog scratches. Simple surface scratches likely pose little risk, but deeper scratches that break the skin can allow bacteria to enter and cause infection.

Risk Factors

There are certain factors that put some people at higher risk of getting an infection from a dog scratch [1]. This includes people who have breaks in their skin, such as open cuts or wounds, which allow bacteria to enter the body more easily. Immune compromised individuals are also at increased risk, including those on chemotherapy, people with autoimmune disorders, the elderly, and young children [1].

Puppies and stray dogs pose a higher risk of carrying diseases like rabies or Capnocytophaga, since they are less likely to be vaccinated or receive routine veterinary care [2]. Young children who do not have fully developed immune systems are more vulnerable to these diseases from puppy scratches. Stray dogs also have a higher chance of exposure to other diseases while living outdoors.

Overall, any person with broken skin or a weakened immune system should take extra precautions if scratched by a dog, especially high risk animals like puppies or strays [1][2]. Promptly washing the wound and contacting a doctor is recommended to prevent potential infections.


Preventing Transmission

There are several ways to help prevent the transmission of diseases from dog scratches:

Vaccines – Keeping your dog up to date on core vaccines like rabies, distemper, and parvo can help prevent the transmission of those diseases if they scratch you. According to the CDC, rabies in particular is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, so vaccination is critical.

Handwashing – Thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water after interacting with any animal can help prevent disease transmission. The friction from scrubbing helps remove more germs. You may also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.

Gloves – Wearing gloves when handling animals, cleaning up after them, or tending to scratches can provide a protective barrier. The CDC recommends avoiding direct contact with animals when you have any open cuts or sores. Properly removing gloves after use is also important to avoid contamination.

person wearing gloves while bandaging dog's paw scratch

According to research, “Washing a dog scratch wound is critical in preventing infections.” So proper hygiene is key to avoiding transmission.

Treating Scratches

If you get scratched by a dog, it’s important to properly clean and treat the wound to prevent infection. The first step is to wash the scratch under running water for at least 5 minutes using soap and water. Scrubbing the wound can damage tissue, so gently clean without rubbing too hard. According to Healthline, “Wash (but don’t scrub) the dog scratch wound with warm water and soap. Rinse for at least 5 minutes.”

After cleaning, apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to the scratch. Antibiotic ointment helps prevent infection by killing bacteria. Cover the scratch with a clean bandage to keep it protected.

It’s also a good idea to get a tetanus shot if you haven’t had one in the past 5 years. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “Wounds caused by dog and cat bites and scratches are at high risk for infection and should be treated promptly by thorough cleaning of the wound under running water.” They recommend seeing a doctor to determine if you need a tetanus shot or antibiotics.

Keeping the wound clean and being vigilant about signs of infection are crucial for proper healing. See a doctor if the scratch shows signs of worsening redness, swelling, oozing, or you develop flu-like symptoms which could indicate infection.

When to See a Doctor

While most minor dog scratches can heal on their own without complications, there are some signs and situations where you should see a doctor. According to a Healthline article, you should seek medical attention if the scratch shows signs of infection, including redness, swelling, warmth, pus, and red streaks. If you develop a fever after a dog scratch, that could indicate an infection, so see a doctor right away. Those with compromised immune systems, such as from diabetes, HIV, or cancer treatment, should also see a doctor for any dog scratch, even a minor one, as they are more prone to infections.

Other times to see a doctor according to PetMD include if the scratch is very deep, won’t stop bleeding after 10 minutes of pressure, or the edges of the scratch are gaping open. Young children should also be taken to a doctor for any significant scratch as a precaution. In summary, it’s always a good idea to seek medical attention anytime a dog scratch breaks the skin, just to evaluate if antibiotics or a tetanus shot is needed to prevent infection.


Testing Dogs

There are many ways to test dogs for diseases or conditions, both genetic and contagious. Veterinary professionals recommend regular testing and exams for all dogs to maintain good health. Some of the key ways to test dogs are:

Genetic testing: According to Cornell University, canine DNA tests can predict and prevent inherited diseases and conditions. There are many genetic markers that can reveal if a dog is at risk for conditions like eye disorders, blood disorders, musculoskeletal issues, and more. Products like the Canine HealthCheck screen for over 325 genetic disease variants.
veterinarian reviewing canine dna genetic test results

Veterinary exams: Regular wellness exams by a vet allow for clinical testing and assessment of a dog’s overall health. Vets can run lab tests, take x-rays and ultrasounds, analyze samples, and physically examine the dog to check for signs of disease. Annual exams are recommended for adult dogs.

Diagnostic testing: If a dog shows symptoms of illness, vets may run tests like bloodwork, biopsies, stool samples, skin scrapes, and more to diagnose the specific condition. Catching diseases early allows for quicker treatment.

Testing dogs routinely and at the first signs of illness can help prevent the spread of disease and allow for timely treatment. Working closely with your veterinarian and following their recommended schedule is key to protecting your dog’s health.

Protecting Your Dog

One of the best ways to protect your dog from disease is through preventative measures like vaccines, flea/tick prevention, and regular vet visits.

Vaccines help prevent many common and potentially deadly diseases in dogs. Core vaccines recommended for all dogs include rabies, distemper, parvo virus, and adenovirus. Your vet may also recommend non-core vaccines based on your dog’s lifestyle and risk factors. Keeping your dog up to date on all recommended vaccines is crucial for disease prevention. According to WebMD, “One of the best ways you can protect your pet from disease is with vaccines. Some diseases you can help prevent are distemper, parvovirus, rabies, hepatitis, coronavirus, and leptospirosis.”

Using flea, tick, and heartworm prevention medication prescribed by your vet is also important. These parasites can transmit dangerous diseases to your dog that can be difficult to treat. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), “Flea and tick control prevents flea allergy dermatitis and controls ticks that could transmit Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.”

Regular vet visits allow your vet to monitor your dog’s health and detect any signs of illness early on. Your vet can also advise you on the best prevention strategies specific to your dog based on health history and risk factors. The AAHA recommends bringing dogs in for annual wellness exams to “update vaccines if needed, run appropriate screening tests for diseases such as heartworm, perform a thorough physical examination, and discuss an exercise/nutrition plan.”


In summary, while dog scratches do carry some risk of disease transmission, the likelihood is quite low in most cases. Healthy dogs that receive routine veterinary care are unlikely to harbor serious contagious illnesses. Additionally, most diseases require direct contact with infected fluids to spread to humans.

That said, immunocompromised individuals and the elderly may be at higher risk from even minor scratches. For these groups, caution is warranted when interacting with unknown dogs. Seeking prompt medical care for any concerning wounds or symptoms is always advisable.

With some basic precautions, dog scratches do not need to be cause for major concern. Keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date, treat any infections, and wash any scratches thoroughly. If you notice signs of infection or illness after a scratch, consult your physician. Otherwise, you can continue to safely enjoy your furry friend!

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