Why Do Cats Scratch People? - Cat Info Detective

Why Do Cats Scratch People?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings curious cats! Skye Blake here to help you understand why cats scratch people… and what you can do to stop it.

You might get a new perspective and avoid those painful scratches in the future!

Let’s discover more…

paw prints coming in from a distance

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a vet or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.

Sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.

Why Do Cats Scratch People?

cat claws closeup

Cats scratch people for a few reasons…

  • Illness
  • Self-Defense
  • Accidentally
  • Claws don’t yet retract

Illness/Injury

tabby cat lying on pillow

The first thing to investigate when your cat scratches you is whether there’s an injury or illness causing pain or sensitivity.

Is this happening only when you touch a certain place on your cat’s body? Or when you pick her up a certain way?

graphic drawing, cartoon of sad, hurt cat

There could be an injury, arthritis, or other problem you can’t see.

It’s worth having your vet do a thorough exam and discuss your observations to discover or rule out medical issues as an underlying cause.

Self-Defense

graphic of black cat looking worried, frazzled, upset

We cats never scratch or hurt people because we’re mean or spiteful… there’s always a reason.

It’s usually as a defense against a threat and can be accompanied by biting… claws and teeth are our only weapons.

Often people don’t realize that something they’re doing is provoking fear and threatening their cat.

tabby, white cat, angry, ears back, irritated

Cats give lots of warning signals that you and your children can learn to read and respect their boundaries.

A major part of feline self-defense when faced with a threat is to run away and avoid a fight.

But if the threat doesn’t go away and there’s no choice, any cat will do what it takes to make it go away, even if it’s necessary to inflict major injury or kill it.

angry black, white cat hissing, meowing

This includes both front and back claws… ever stuck your hand in that blender? The kicker move can really get you!

The key is to know what you do that a cat sees as threatening and change your behavior.

Think of the last time your cat scratched you. What were you doing at the time?

cat being petted at animal shelter, rescue

Trying to tickle her tummy? Petting her?

Cats usually aren’t inviting you to touch that sensitive area and will defend it.

Overstimulating with too much petting or touching the wrong areas will elicit a swat (or more if you don’t get the hint!).

Discover more at “Aggression in Cats – What Causes It?

Accidentally

grey cat paw, claws

Accidental scratches are usually from a cat’s claws being too long.

Clipping them regularly helps keep them healthy and reduces these types of scratches.

Other unintentional scratches are when cats do things like jump down from your lap and dig in their back claws for balance and stability.

kitten asleep on lap

The cat sees no difference between the chair and your lap and has no idea this will hurt you.

This also happens when a cat is startled, jumps up and launches with claws out from where she was sitting.

Learn how to keep your cat’s claws trimmed at “How to Groom a Cat“.

Discover why declawing is not an option at “Declawing Cats – Good or Bad?“.

Young Kittens

young kitten with paws, claws on arm of chair, scratch people

Kittens are born with claws that don’t retract, so they’re not able to sheath them.

It’s like having tiny sharp pins poking into your skin… ouch!

They’re born this way because it helps stimulate their mother’s milk when they knead, helping ensure their survival.

white mother cat with kittens, babies

It also helps them grab onto things while learning to balance and climb.

Once kittens are about 4 weeks old, their little paws start being able to retract the claws.

Most people won’t be dealing with this… it’s not an issue by the time they get their kittens.

Are Cat Scratches Dangerous?

scratch marks on people

Getting scratched by a cat hurts and can be frightening for people.

While they’re nothing to panic about, scratches can get infected, and some diseases like cat scratch fever can be transmitted to humans.

It’s important to wash scratches immediately and watch for any symptoms of infection or fever.

soapy hands, washing

If you have any concerns about a scratch (or bite), contact your doctor right away.

If you’re scratched or bitten by an unfamiliar cat, check with your doctor about the risks and how to handle them.

Detailed information about cat scratch fever symptoms and other diseases is available at “Cat Scratch Disease“.

How to Reduce Scratching

claws extended on paw of black cat, scratch people

You can reduce or eliminate scratching by…

  • Taking your cat to the vet for an exam to rule out possible medical problems
children using wand toy playing with white cat, scratch people
  • Respecting your cat’s boundaries and personal space

Moving Forward

cartoon signpost, this way, that way, decision

Now that you understand why cats scratch and what you can do to prevent scratches, you can keep working on making your home happy and healthy for everyone.

If you want to learn more about feline aggression, take a look at “Aggression in Cats – What Causes It?” and “Why Does My Cat Bite?


Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

Cat Scratch Disease“, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Cat Scratch Disease (Bartonella henselae Infection)“, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Last Reviewed: June 13, 2023

“Decoding Your Cat”, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Editors: Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVB, Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, DACVB, DECAWBM, pp. 202-203, 230-231

“The Cat Whisperer”, by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com, pp. 240-254

“Claws Out”, Tiny But Mighty by Hannah Shaw, Plume, Penguin Random House LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com, p. 87

“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, pp. 180-189

“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017

“What to Do if You Are Scratched by a Cat”, by Dr. Susan Krebsbach, Preventive Vet, Published: March 15, 2022, Updated: November 23, 2022

Updated December 28, 2023

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