Can armadillos scratch you?

Armadillos are unusual looking animals that are found in the southern United States, most of Central America, and South America. Their shell-like armored bodies protect them from predators, and their strong claws are used for digging. But can these clawed creatures also scratch humans?

Armadillo Facts

There are approximately 20 different species of armadillo, according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (1). All species have a protective shell made up of bony plates covered with thick, leathery skin. This armored shell protects armadillos from predators.

Armadillos have very strong front claws that are excellent for digging. They use these claws to dig deep burrows where they sleep during the day, as well as to root around in the ground searching for food (2).

The nine-banded armadillo is the most common species in the United States. It is about 2.5 feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail and weighs between 5-17 pounds as an adult. The nine-banded armadillo has a tan to brown color shell and light tan skin on its underside (3).

Can Armadillos Scratch Humans?

An armadillo’s claws are certainly sharp enough to pierce human skin if handled carelessly or threatened. However, armadillos are not aggressive animals and do not intentionally attack or scratch people.

In most cases, armadillos are very shy creatures that prefer to avoid humans altogether. If approached, they will likely ignore the person and try to wander off on their way. They do not display any sort of aggressive or defensive behavior (4).

However, armadillos do have very poor vision. If a person accidentally startles an armadillo by approaching it quietly, the armadillo may jump in surprise. Their reaction is simply to escape from the perceived threat, but their sharp claws could inadvertently scratch a hand or arm in this process.

The most common situation that leads to an armadillo scratch is when a person tries to pick one up. Armadillos do not like being handled and will typically try to run away. If picked up against their will, an armadillo may flail its legs in an effort to escape. Its strong claws could scratch the handler in this process.

Armadillo Scratches Are Rare

Although armadillos could theoretically scratch someone if mishandled or startled, reports of this actually happening are very rare. In one survey published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, the authors analyzed reports of armadillo encounters and could not find any documented cases of armadillos scratching, biting, or attacking people (5).

There are occasional second-hand reports shared on the internet of armadillos scratching people when held, but documented medical cases are essentially non-existent.

An armadillo’s first reaction when approached by a person is to freeze, remain motionless, or slowly wander away from the perceived threat. If further provoked, their instinct is to quickly flee by running or burrowing, not attack.

Risk of Disease

Although actual scratches are unlikely, there is some concern about disease transmission if an armadillo scratch were to occur. All mammals have bacteria present on their claws and an armadillo is no exception. A scratch could potentially transmit bacteria that could cause infection or disease in humans.

Perhaps the biggest concern is transmission of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Some wild armadillos are naturally infected with the bacteria that causes leprosy. The risk of transmission to humans is thought to be very low, but leprosy cases attributed to contact with armadillos have been reported (6).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 100 cases of leprosy occur in the United States each year. However, the vast majority occur in people who have traveled or immigrated from areas where leprosy is more common. Cases attributed specifically to armadillos remain very rare (7).

Safety Precautions

While actual armadillo scratches are uncommon, it is wise to use caution when interacting with these wild animals to minimize the risk.

Some safety tips include:

  • Avoid interacting with or handling armadillos
  • Do not corner or provoke armadillos
  • Supervise children and pets around armadillos
  • Wear gloves and long sleeves if handling is necessary
  • Wash hands thoroughly after any contact with armadillos

Following basic precautions greatly reduces any risk of scratches or disease transmission.

What to Do If Scratched

In the very unlikely event that someone is scratched by an armadillo, the wound should be washed carefully with soap and warm water. Keeping wounds clean helps prevent infection.

Medical attention should be sought if:

  • The wound is deep
  • Bleeding does not stop
  • Signs of infection develop, like redness, swelling, warmth, or pus
  • Other concerning symptoms occur

Notify your doctor if you know or suspect the wound was caused by an armadillo, especially if in an area where leprosy occurs. Antibiotics may be prescribed to help prevent leprosy infection.

With prompt care, most scratches heal without incident. Overall risk is low if proper precautions are followed when interacting with wild armadillos.

Key Points

  • Armadillos have sharp claws for digging, but do not attack or scratch people
  • Scratches can occur if an armadillo is mishandled or accidentally startled
  • Documented cases of armadillos scratching humans are very rare
  • Take precautions and avoid contact with armadillos
  • Promptly clean and monitor any wound caused by an armadillo


Armadillos are not aggressive animals and human scratches are unlikely. Still, their sharp claws could scratch skin if mishandled or startled. Actual reports of this occurring are very rare as armadillos will more likely flee from humans. Caution should be used if interacting with armadillos to minimize any risk. Proper wound care and consulting a doctor are recommended if an armadillo scratch were to occur.

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