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Cat Scratch Fever: It’s Real But Easily Avoided by Flea Control

Here are facts about the disease as well as tips on how to prevent and treat it.

Marci Kladnik  |  Nov 19th 2015


You might have heard stories of people becoming ill after being bitten or scratched by a cat. Back in the 1970s there was a popular song, Cat Scratch Fever, but it really had nothing to do with the disease transmitted by cats. The disease is not serious to humans, unless the person who contracts it has a compromised immune system. The good news is that by keeping the flea population in your house and yard under control, you have little to worry about.

It is an ancient disease, having been discovered in a 4,000-year-old tooth. In an amusing anecdote, Dr. Cynthia Rigoni, admits that there was some confusion as to its transmission to humans in the past.

“I was taught that it was a rare disease caused by the cats scratching on a rose bush at high altitudes and then licking [themselves] and immediately scratching or biting the affected human,” Rigoni said.

The disease is NOT transmitted by a cat scratching a rose bush before scratching a human! (photo by Michael Brian)

The disease is not transmitted by a cat scratching a rose bush and then scratching a human. Photo by Michael Brian

Physicians and researchers now agree that it is transmitted to cats via infected fleas or ticks.

Cat scratch fever is also known as cat scratch disease

It is caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae. Estimates are that 20 percent to 40 percent of cats are carriers, depending on what part of the country they reside in and how old the animals are. It has been noted that kittens tend to have the higher risk factor. Cats can be tested and, if found to be carriers, treated.

Cecile Buls, fellow Cat Writers’ Association member and artist, once took in a feral kitten from a colony with known Bartonella carriers. Cecile reports she made an offhand remark to a vet, that the cat would be “biting me for another 15 years, and [the vet] immediately said, have you had her tested for Bartonella? Turns out it can cause aggression.”

A cat contracts the bacterium by ingesting an infected parasite or “flea dirt” through normal grooming. The cat itself does not become ill, but within a period of a few weeks following ingestion the animal can pass the bacteria on by biting or scratching a human. Saliva is believed to be the usual mode of transmission, but as an infected cat grooms with the tongue, the bacteria can also adhere to the claws and fur as well.

Cats can contract the bacteria through normal grooming. (photo by Marci Kladnik)

Cats can contract the bacteria through normal grooming. Photo by Marci Kladnik

Symptoms in humans include swelling and redness at the site of puncture or scratch as soon as two days following the incident. Lymph nodes in the upper body become swollen and sore, and flu-like symptoms and fever may be present. The bite or scratch may also be slow to heal. Treatment is usually not called for, but some cases do require antibiotics.

Thankfully, cat scratch disease is not common, but I know several people who have contracted it; one got it twice. The young son of a friend had swollen lymph nodes for a year. I have been scratched and bitten many times in my years of trapping and fostering feral kittens. Fortunately, the worst I suffered was a couple of swollen hands from bites that healed on their own. There were the seven stitches in my face from an attack by my own cat, but that’s another story; the ER doc put me on preventative antibiotics for that one.

The lymph nodes in the upper body will react to the cat scratch disease bacteria and swell.

Lymph node examination by Shutterstock

“In 30 years of doing nothing but cats with more than a few bites and scratches under our belts, no one here has contracted the disease,” says Rigoni. “I have had two clients who have been diagnosed with it, one of which turned out to be a lymphatic disease and not [cat scratch disease].”

Yes, indoor cats can be carriers

There is no need to get rid of your pet, though, you can take simple steps to avoid this disease.

The first line of defense is flea control for your cat, home, and yard, because cat scratch disease is initially transmitted to cats via these annoying parasites. There are many choices now, including spot-on treatments as well as organic products. Oral flea meds and collars with pharmaceuticals have also recently hit the market for those of us who dislike applying noxious oily chemicals to cats’ necks.

An inexpensive yard and carpet dust is diatomaceous earth. It will kill all soft-bodied insects that might be lurking in your house and garden, be they beneficial or not, so spread it wisely. We broadcast some in a stall teeming with fleas at our feral cat barn, and it took care of the problem quickly.

Diatomaceous earth is a natural, mined substance composed of the exoskeletons of long dead diatoms. You can get it at farm supply stores in the chicken section; the birds love to roll in it to get rid of the “sticky” fleas that literally latch on. You can also find it online. Be sure to buy food grade diatomaceous earth, not the stuff with chemical additives used in pool filters. If your cat has worms, you can even add diatomaceous earth to her wet food and it will kill the parasites. St. Gabriel’s Organics sells several diatomaceous earth products in its pet product line.

Fleas and other parasites are a way of life for our feral friends.

Flea control is essential for prevention of cat-scratch disease. Photo by Marci Kladnik

If you have been bitten or scratched, immediately wash the area copiously with soap and water. I administer propolis (a product produced by bees and found in health food stores as a sore throat spray or tincture) on any wound I get from the ferals I deal with as a precaution. Honey is a natural antibiotic and promotes quick healing. It has worked well for me, but be careful if you are allergic to bee stings. I learned about this product from a neighbor who used it on her injured cat during a weekend emergency. By the time she got to the veterinarian on Monday, the wounds were clean and well on the way to healing. Of course, this would be considered a homeopathic treatment; if your symptoms are severe, visit your doctor.

Cat in high-excitement mode “killing” this toy bird. Note the dilated eyes, forward-facing whiskers and hind feet preparing to kick. (photo by Marci Kladnik)

Here’s a cat in high-excitement mode “killing” this toy bird. Note the dilated eyes, forward-facing whiskers and hind feet preparing to kick. Photo by Marci Kladnik

Teasing a cat can bring out the wild side, including the claws and teeth. A baited or provoked animal is more likely to bite and scratch. Some cats even react strongly to catnip and become aggressive after contact with the herb. It is a good idea to keep your pet’s claws clipped. The cat can still easily climb a cat tree with clipped claws.

Children are at higher risk of contracting cat scratch disease. Protect them from being bitten or scratched by encouraging gentle play with all pets. I have read that boys are prone to contract cat scratch disease more often than girls. Also, youngsters in general put their fingers in their mouths often and also do not wash their hands as frequently as adults.

Playing with kittens can lead to scratches! (photo by Marci Kladnik)

Playing with kittens can lead to scratches. Photo by Marci Kladnik

It is always a good idea to wash your hands after handling a pet, especially if the animal is an indoor-outdoor pet. Petting tainted fur and then rubbing your eyes or eating can expose you to various unwelcome bacteria, not just the one causing cat scratch disease.

Fear not. Embrace and love your cat, but don’t forget the flea control.

About the author: Marci Kladnik, her four rescue cats, and one rescue dog live in a small town with no stoplights or mail delivery. A retired graphic designer and technical writer, she turned her talents to championing feral cats in 2007. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the board of directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007-2013 while trapping and fostering local feral cats and kittens. Her award-winning biweekly cat column ran for seven years in three newspapers. She is an award-winning photographer, and president of the Cat Writers’ Association. Past columns appear on www.catalystforcats.org.