Cat Claws Got You Down? How to Treat Minor Scratches at Home

Introduction

Cat scratches are very common injuries for pet owners, with cat scratches accounting for up to 15-20% of animal bites according to some studies [1]. While most are minor, cat scratches do carry a risk of infection since cats have bacteria in their mouths that can be introduced into the wound [2]. Learning how to properly clean and care for cat scratches at home is important to prevent complications and avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor or vet.

Cat scratches should not be taken lightly even though they seem minor on the surface. With proper home treatment you can greatly reduce the risks and avoid complications. This article will cover the signs of cat scratches, how to clean and treat them, when to see a medical professional, and tips to prevent scratches.

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9744681/

[2] https://emj.bmj.com/content/22/4/260

Signs of Cat Scratches

When a dog is scratched by a cat, the area will often show clear signs of injury. According to Wag Walking, the most common signs of cat scratches on dogs include redness, swelling, and bleeding around the scratch site.

Redness occurs due to damaged capillaries leaking blood into the surrounding tissue. This results in red discoloration around the scratch. As the body rushes immune cells to the area, swelling also frequently occurs around a cat scratch. This is the inflammatory response in action.

close up of red swollen cat scratch on dog's skin

Finally, cat scratches can often penetrate deep enough to cause bleeding. Bleeding indicates a scratch has broken through the epidermis skin layer. Bleeding from cat scratches tends to be minor compared to cuts, but can still be a concern if the scratch is on the face or other delicate areas.

In summary, redness, swelling, and bleeding are common reactions at the site of a cat scratch on a dog’s skin. These signs help identify the scratch and determine how significant it is.

Risks of Infection

Cat claws harbor bacteria that can cause infection if introduced into a wound. The main bacteria of concern is Bartonella henselae, which can lead to cat scratch fever (also called cat scratch disease). According to the CDC, cat scratch fever is usually harmless and goes away on its own, but can occasionally lead to more serious complications like fever, headache, fatigue, and lymph node swelling near the scratch [1].

Another risk is the wound becoming an abscess, which is a pocket of pus caused by bacterial infection. Abscesses develop if the wound isn’t properly cleaned and the bacteria penetrate deep into the tissue. Signs of an abscess include swelling, redness, pain, and pus drainage around the scratch. Abscesses require veterinary treatment, including draining the infection and antibiotics [2].

vet draining an abscess on dog's skin from infected wound

To reduce the risk of complications, it’s important to promptly clean any cat scratches on your dog and watch for signs of infection.

Cleaning the Wound

The most important first step when treating a cat scratch on a dog is to clean the wound properly to prevent infection. To clean the scratch:

  • Stop any bleeding by applying gentle pressure with a clean towel or cloth. Elevating the scratched area can also help reduce bleeding.
  • Flush the wound with clean running water. This helps remove dirt, debris, and bacteria.
  • washing cat scratch on dog's paw under running water

  • Use a mild soap and wash the wound gently. Avoid using hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, as these can damage healthy tissue.
  • Pat dry with a clean towel.
  • Apply a disinfectant such as diluted povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine solution. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before rinsing off.

Proper cleaning reduces the microbial load and risk of infection. Be sure to avoid scrubbing, which can further damage the wound. Contact your veterinarian if the scratch is deep or continues bleeding profusely despite pressure. [1]

Applying Antibiotic Ointment

Applying an antibiotic ointment is crucial for preventing infection and soothing irritation after a cat scratch. Some top options include triple antibiotic ointment, Bacitracin, and Neosporin. Triple antibiotic ointment contains three antibiotics – bacitracin, neomycin, and polymyxin B – that work synergistically to fight bacteria and prevent infection (Source). Bacitracin is another antibiotic that research shows can effectively treat minor cuts, abrasions, and burns on dogs (Source). Neosporin contains bacitracin, neomycin, and polymyxin B, making it a good option as well. Just be sure to use the regular Neosporin and not one containing pain relief, as that can be toxic to dogs (Source).

Apply a small amount of the ointment gently onto the wound and surrounding area 1-2 times per day. This will help prevent infection while also soothing any irritation or inflammation caused by the scratch. Be sure to follow all label instructions.

Bandaging

After cleaning the wound and applying antibiotic ointment, you’ll want to cover it with a sterile bandage to protect it and prevent licking. Choose a soft, breathable bandage that won’t stick to the wound. Wrap it gently but snugly around the injured area. Be sure not to wrap it too tightly as this can cut off circulation.

For paw injuries, wrap each toe individually with gauze before bandaging the whole paw. This helps keep the bandage clean and in place. For wounds on joints like the leg or shoulder, use tape or gauze wrap to secure the bandage.

It’s important to prevent your dog from licking and chewing at the bandage. You may need to use a cone collar until the wound starts healing. Check the bandage daily and change it as needed. Keeping the wound protected and clean will help prevent infection.

dog wearing cone collar so he doesn't lick his bandaged leg

According to Arrowhead Tapes, garter tape can be used as a guide when bandaging legs or joints to help secure the wrap. Wrapping the wound snugly but not too tight is key for protection without loss of circulation.1

Pain Management

The pain caused by a cat scratch can be managed at home using over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). These medications can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

For mild pain, start with a normal dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Check the product label for the recommended dosage amount based on the pet’s weight. Give the medication with food to avoid stomach upset.

Do not give cats or dogs products containing acetaminophen or ibuprofen regularly or at higher doses without first consulting a veterinarian. Overuse of these human medications can cause liver and kidney damage in pets. Use only OTC pain relievers formulated specifically for pets if extended use is needed.

Applying a cold compress to the scratch site can also help reduce pain and inflammation. Make sure to monitor the pet closely when using any medication and contact the veterinarian if pain seems uncontrolled with OTC options. Never give pets multiple pain medications at the same time unless directed by a vet.

Signs of Infection

If the cat scratch becomes infected, some common signs to watch for include:

  • Oozing from the wound – Yellow or green pus draining from the scratch indicates infection.
  • Increased redness – Redness spreading from the scratch or becoming darker red points to infection.
  • Swelling – Significant swelling around the scratch often signals infection.
  • Fever – An infected scratch may cause a fever in dogs.

Other symptoms like lethargy, loss of appetite, and enlarged lymph nodes can also indicate infection. If you notice any of these signs, contact your vet right away as antibiotics may be required (source). An infected cat scratch can progress to something more serious like cat scratch disease, so prompt treatment is important.

When to See the Vet

In most cases, minor scratches from a cat can be treated at home. However, you should take your dog to the vet if the scratch is deep, shows signs of infection, or causes more serious symptoms.

Look for the following signs that indicate a vet visit is needed:

  • Deep punctures in the skin
  • Abscesses or pus at the scratch site
  • Swelling, redness, pain, or heat around the scratch
  • Fever
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Eye injuries such as scratches to the cornea

Deep wounds have a higher risk of infection. Bacteria from a cat’s claws can get trapped in the puncture and cause an abscess or cellulitis. Signs of infection include pus, swelling, redness, and fever (Source).

Cat scratch fever is a bacterial infection that can occur after a cat scratch. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and swollen lymph nodes. If the scratch causes these systemic symptoms, take your dog to the vet right away (Source).

Any eye injuries caused by a cat scratch need immediate veterinary attention. Cats have bacteria in their mouths that can infect the cornea and cause vision problems or blindness if left untreated.

Prevention Tips

There are some things you can do to help prevent your cat from scratching your dog:

Supervise interactions between your cat and dog, especially when they are first getting to know each other. It’s a good idea to keep them separated when you are not around to monitor their behavior. That way, you can intervene quickly if the playing gets too rough [1].

Trim your cat’s nails regularly to dull the sharp points that can scratch skin. Use cat-safe nail clippers and trim just the very tip of the nail, taking care not to cut the quick [2].

Provide distraction toys for your cat to play with instead of your dog, like ping pong balls, catnip toys, or interactive wand toys. Give your cat an outlet for their energy and natural hunting instinct [3].

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