What is Cat Scratch Fever? Cat Scratch Disease - or Bartonellosis - and How It Affects Humans

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You’ve probably heard of “cat scratch fever” thanks to Ted Nugent’s famous song. But cat scratch fever -- actually known as cat scratch disease -- is more than just the basis for a groovy 70s jam; it’s an infection caused by bacteria carried in flea feces.

If you own a cat, you’ve probably heard by now that your furry friend should be protected from fleas.Fleas not only cause itching and irritation, they are also carriers of disease. Cat scratch disease is one disease that is transmitted by fleas; specifically, flea feces. While some cats with cat scratch disease do show symptoms, it is a cat’s human companions who are most likely to become ill from an infection. Read on to learn how to protect your cat and yourself.

Causes of Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease is caused by an infection by the bacterium Bartonella henselae. This bacterium lives in flea dirt, or flea feces. A cat who is hosting fleas may scratch or lick themselves while grooming and transmit the flea dirt to their claws or mouth. A cat may also pick up flea dirt while fighting or playing with another cat.

If the infected cat then licks a person or animal’s open wound or scratches or bites a person or animal, they can pass on the infection.

The CDC estimates that 40% of cats will carry the Bartonella henselae bacterium at some point in their lives, though most will not show symptoms. Cats who live in warm, humid climates, cats who are not protected from fleas, and kittens under one year-old are more likely to carry the infection. Additionally, because kittens tend to scratch and bite while playing, they are more likely to spread the disease.

Symptoms of Cat Scratch Disease

Most infected cats will not show symptoms, though in rare cases there may be swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, and fever. Additionally, cat scratch disease can cause inflammation of the organs in some cats, leading to serious complications.

In humans, symptoms begin to appear within three to fourteen days of a scratch or bite. The person will typically develop a red bump at the infection site. It may be warm or painful to the touch, and lesions and pus may be present. Additional symptoms include:

  • Swollen and painful lymph nodes near the infection site. Swelling can last for months.
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

In young children and individuals with weakened immune systems, cat scratch disease can also affect the brain, heart, eyes, and other internal organs.

Diagnosing Cat Scratch Disease

Because most cats with cat scratch disease do not show symptoms, testing is not all that common. However, if your cat is showing symptoms or you suspect that you may be infected, there are certain blood culture, DNA, and antibody tests that your veterinarian can perform.

As far as diagnosing cat scratch disease in humans, your doctor will determine the best course of action. Most people are only tested when symptoms are severe.

Treatment for Cat Scratch Disease

Treating cat scratch disease can be tricky. In cats, it is most commonly treated with the antibiotic azithromycin, but it is not always successful. In humans, treatment is usually not necessary and the infection will resolve on its own. In more serious cases, however, antibiotics may be prescribed.

Preventing Cat Scratch Disease

There are several things you can do to avoid getting cat scratch disease:

  • Keep your cat on a flea preventative at all times, regardless of where you live.
  • Do not engage in rough play with your cat that could lead to scratching or biting.
  • Keep your cat indoors and away from unfamiliar cats.
  • Keep your cat’s nails trimmed.
  • If you are ever scratched or bitten, wash the area with soap and warm water immediately.
  • If you or someone in your house has a compromised immune system, talk to your doctor before bringing a cat home, as cat scratch disease can cause serious health complications.
  • Contact your doctor if you ever exhibit any symptoms of cat scratch disease.

Cat-Scratch Disease
Cat Scratch Disease
Bartonella and Cat Scratch Fever
Bartonellosis: Cat Scratch Disease

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