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The Facts About Cat Scratch Fever

Nearly half of all cats carry the bacteria that causes cat scratch fever during their lives.

 |  Jan 21st 2014  |   8 Contributions


Cat scratch fever is an intriguing zoonotic disease. Cats and kittens are carriers, but they do not suffer from it, instead passing it on to humans. Fortunately, very few people are at risk for contracting cat scratch fever. Here at Catster, we are committed to bringing you all the information you need about cat scratch fever, also known as cat scratch disease: What it is, how it spreads, and how it's treated. We also suggest preventative measures.

In our look at cat scratch fever, you're going to learn about bacteria, flea feces, and lymph nodes. While many sources on the Internet make joking references to the 1970s album and song called "Cat Scratch Fever," what you're not going to see is the name of the so-called "Motor City Madman," mostly because he doesn't believe in animal rights.

Fleas transmit the Bartonella henselae bacterium to cats. White Cat scratching by Shutterstock.

What is cat scratch fever?

Cat scratch fever is an infectious, bacterial, zoonotic disease that is contracted by people from contact with cats and kittens. It seems to be most common in the young of both species. Kittens are more likely to carry Bartonella henselae, the bacteria that causes cat scratch fever, and children and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to it. Fortunately for your kittens and cats, the bacteria that causes cat scratch fever in humans is one that they may carry but do not suffer from themselves. 

At some point in their lives, approximately 40 percent of all cats will carry the Bartonella bacteria. Fleas and ticks that take up residence on cats transmit the bacteria to cats, where it can remain on the skin or be ingested during the course of normal cat self-grooming. The most fascinating conjecture I've found about transmission is that fleas pass the bacteria to cats through their excrement. Yes, flea poop.

Cats and kittens only carry the bacteria; they do not present symptoms of cat scratch disease. Mum a cat licks the kitten on green grass background by Shutterstock.

Fleas pass it to cats, who transmit it to humans. There is no evidence to suggest that fleas or flea bites can pass Bartonella directly to people, though ticks can. Though the names "cat scratch fever" or "cat scratch disease" imply a certain aggressive mode of transmission, the bacteria can be present anywhere on a cat's body. People can pick up the Bartonella bacterium from touch, a lick, a bite, or a scratch.

Cat scratch fever symptoms

In one to two weeks from contact with Bartonella bacteria, whether through a scratch, bite, or otherwise, a person infected with cat scratch disease will notice a small, raised lesion at the site of infection. Since cat scratch fever can be contracted by touch, particularly if you pet a cat or kitten and then rub your eyes or touch your face, swelling may occur even in a place that has no sign of bite or scratch.

This young woman is having her lymph nodes checked. Woman Palpating Lymph Node by Shutterstock.

After the development of these lesions, the next common cat scratch fever symptoms include swollen lymph nodes and fever. Children or people with weak immune systems may develop more advanced symptoms of cat scratch fever. These symptoms include headache, sore throat, chills, appetite loss, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.

Cat scratch fever treatment

Cat scratch fever is, by and large, a self-limiting disease, which means that even without treatment, any adverse effects the bacteria may cause will go away on their own. In the majority of cases, cat scratch fever is a very mild infectious disease. Cat scratch fever affects less than three in 100,000 people, and, on average, it is estimated that only 22,000 instances occur in the U.S. each year.

Kittens are especially prone to carrying Bartonella bacteria, which they can transmit through bites or scratches. little kitten on the hand by Shutterstock.

Any number of cases may not be reported at all, since most symptoms disappear on their own in a few weeks even when completely untreated. In severe cases of cat scratch fever, in which symptoms do not abate, a doctor may prescribe antimicrobial medications or antibiotics to hasten its resolution.

Minimize your risk!

With a particularly mild and low-occurrence disease like cat scratch fever, prevention is the best way to avoid infection. Cats and kittens are carriers of Bartonella bacteria, but they do not suffer ill effects from it. Not every cat is a carrier of cat scratch fever, but any cat or kitten can be one. Since fleas pass the bacteria to cats, your first and best line of defense is keeping your cat flea-free. Our closing comments on cat scratch fever prevention fall within the bounds of common sense. While I admit it can be fun to feel a kitten nibble on your finger, try to limit roughhousing with them or provoking them to the point that they might bite or scratch you.

This lady seems to be having fun, but she is also taking an unnecessary risk. cheerful cowgirl playing with funny kitten in the ranch by Shutterstock.

Practicing proper hygiene around cats is recommended as well. In particular, you should wash your hands and other areas of contact after touching or playing with cats or kittens. I actually feel kind of silly saying this, but another good rule of thumb is not to allow cats to lick or touch open wounds on your body. The more you know, right? Cat scratch fever is mild and rare enough that it be contracted and pass without notice, but it's better not to be careless with infectious diseases.

Have you ever had cat scratch fever? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments!

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