Everything You Need to Know About Cat Scratch Fever
Cat scratch fever is more than a Ted Nugent song—it’s a medical condition that you can catch from cat bites or scratches. Let’s break down what it is and what symptoms to look for in yourself and your cat.
What is Cat Scratch Disease?
Cat scratch fever is more technically known as cat scratch disease (CSD). It’s a bacterial infection caused by Bartonella henselae, passed to cats by fleas. The infection is typically innocuous in cats, but you might feel the effects if you get scratched or bitten by an infected cat.
This infectious disease can be passed from cat to human any time their saliva comes into contact with your bloodstream or eyes. This most commonly happens if your cat breaks the skin in a playful or serious cat scratch or bite or if they lick your scab or open wound. Although rare, it’s also possible to catch CSD directly from an infected flea or tick.
Human Symptoms and Care for CSD
Most Bartonella infections are quite mild and present with light flu-like symptoms and irritation near the infection site. Watch out for any of these symptoms following a cat scratch or bite:
- blister or bump at the bite or scratch site
- painful or swollen lymph nodes
- body aches
- low-grade fever
Most people will naturally fend off the infection without medical care, but some might need to see a doctor. In rare cases, CSD can result in a more severe infection. This is most common among children from 5-14 years of age and people with weakened immune systems. You should seek medical attention if you’re suffering or experience more unusual symptoms including:
- joint pain
- abdominal pain
- high or prolonged fever
After a physical examination, a doctor can provide you with a cat scratch fever blood test. Running a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test will show if Bartonella henselae is present in your bloodstream. In most cases, a simple course of antibiotics is all that’s needed to rid your body of the infection and get you back to normal.
Severe cases of CSD can have rare complications that affect the eyes, brain, and bones if left untreated. Affected individuals should also watch out for symptoms of bacillary angiomatosis—a skin condition characterized by swollen red lesions surrounded by a ring of scaly skin. Without proper care, the condition can spread to internal organs.
On the whole, CSD infections are typically mild and nothing to worry about. The CDC estimates that there are about 12,000 cases of CSD in the United States each year, and only 500 of them require hospitalization. Still, you can always contact your doctor if you’re concerned. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Cat Symptoms and Care for CSD
Bartonella infection—known as feline bartonellosis—is quite common in cats. The CDC estimates that about 40% of cats will be infected at some point in their lives, mostly as kittens. The vast majority of cats carry the bacteria without presenting any symptoms at all, meaning that the infection can come and go without you even realizing it.
In some rare cases, feline bartonellosis can result in a temporary illness. Mild cases usually pass in 48-72 hours, but more severe infections can result in inflamed organs. Watch out for fever, vomiting, lethargy, red eyes, swollen lymph nodes, or decreased appetite, and (as always) talk to your vet if your cat seems to be in any distress. They can test for Bartonella, prescribe antibiotics, and help manage your cat’s symptoms.
How to Prevent Cat Scratch Disease
Conventional wisdom holds true here: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! While CSD is rarely serious, it’s best to avoid it altogether if possible.
You can attack the root of the problem by keeping fleas far, far away. Cats get Bartonella from flea bites and excrement (and so can you!), so make sure that you give your BFF regular anti-flea medication or flea collars. Indoor cats have the advantage in avoiding insect hitchhikers, but they’re not immune either. You or your human guests can easily bring fleas home with you and your cat will make a prime target for them, so consider flea treatment even for indoor pets.
You can also minimize any high-risk contact with cats. Immunocompromised people and children are at the highest risk of CSD complications, so they might benefit from skipping playtime with kittens, who are most likely to be carriers. And of course, always wash any cat bites or scratches well with soap and water to reduce your risk of infection.
Now go forth and get back to playing with your cat fear-free—you’re an informed pet partner, friend!