Can I Get Rabies After a Dog Scratch?

Adrienne Farricelli

Many people may wonder whether they can get rabies after a dog scratch. Here is what experts say.

Many people may wonder whether they can get rabies after a dog scratch considering that there is not much information on how rabies is exactly transmitted. There seems to be a lot of information about rabies being carried through dog bites, but not much about dog scratches. So are dog scratches also capable of causing rabies? Should you worry if a stray or a dog with an unknown vaccination history scratches you? Here are some answers to these questions from the experts in the field.

Can I Get Rabies After a Dog Scratch?

Despite the fact that the world has been trying to eradicate rabies from the face of earth for quite some time, rabies still affects tens of thousands of people each year in the United States and abroad.

The truth is, rabies remains popular, being known for being one of the deadliest diseases on earth, and the scariest part is that there is no cure once a rabies infection has established. So the most important factor remains prevention.

Everybody seems to know that rabies is transmitted when the virus carried through saliva is introduced into a bite wound by a rabid animal, but what about scratches?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is still possible to contract rabies through a non-bite wound, including abrasions, scratches and open wounds as these can become potentially contaminated by infectious material from a rabid animal.

So yes, all it takes is that a rabid dog with saliva-embedded nails scratches a human or the dog scratches a human and then happens to salivate in the wound. Even a small scratch is a risk since the virus particles are very small.

Although such non-bite exposures are rarely known to cause rabies, there are occasional reports of people contracting rabies through such exposures and therefore require immediate medical attention.

Fortunately, in the USA most dogs are vaccinated against rabies because it's mandated by law. The risks of contracting rabies from dogs therefore remain higher in third world countries; whereas in the USA most cases of rabies derive from wild animals such as bats.

Do I Need a Rabies Shot After a Dog Scratch?

The answer is it depends. Is the dog current on the rabies vaccine? If yes, and the efficacy of the vaccine is confirmed by laboratory evidence, no rabies shots are usually needed.

But what if the vaccine has elapsed? And if so, how long ago? Was the dog ever vaccinated against rabies? Did the dog have a recent encounter with a wild animal? How deep is the scratch? These are all important questions.

If an unknown dog has scratched you, play it safe and report to your doctor immediately. You may also want to notify your local public health unit or the state health department

In the meanwhile, wash the exposed skin with water and soap for a good 10–15 minutes and then apply povidone-iodine.

Generally, rabies vaccines are given when when there are bite or scratch wounds coming from unvaccinated dogs, cats, or wildlife.

Contrary to what many think, if you have never been vaccinated before, the rabies vaccine isn't just one single shot, but rather a series of vaccines given after the bite or scratch in people who have never been vaccinated before.

Here is the story of a person getting the series of rabies shots after asking a rabies exception for a dog: Rabies vaccination: Should veterinarians exempt or not?

" If you are bitten or scratched by a suspect rabid animal, or saliva from the animal enters an open wound, or becomes in contact with your nose, mouth, or eyes, wash the wound or contact area with soap and water, call your physician or the health department and get medical attention immediately. "~ NC State University, College of Veterinary Medicine


World Health Organization: Rabies FAQ​

Scratches/Abrasions without Bleeding" Cause Rabies: A 7 Years Rabies Death Review from Medical College Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. Authors: Omesh Kumar Bharti Government Dr Shimla, Himachal Pradesh