Cat Scratch Fever

Discover the symptoms of cat scratch fever and find out which precautions you can take to avoid the infection.

By : Erika Sorocco | Posted: March 9, 2011, 3 a.m. EST

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black and white kitten
Avoid playing roughly with your cat, as this may lead to cat scratches and bites and leave you at risk for contracting cat scratch fever. 
Professionally known as Bartonella Henselae (an intracellular parasite), but recognized by its more common moniker of cat scratch fever or cat scratch disease, CSD is a form of infection that human beings are able to contract via a scratch or bite received by an infected cat. Contrary to popular belief, not all felines are carriers or hosts of Bartonella Henselae; therefore, not all bites or scratches that one acquires from a cat will cause CSD.

“Most people get CSD from cat bites and scratches,” says Dr. Michelle Beck, DVM at P.A.W.S. Pet Hospital in Hugo, Minn. “Kittens are more likely to be infected and to pass the bacterium to people. About 40% of cats carry B. henselae at some time in their lives. Cats that carry B. henselae do not show any signs of illness; therefore, you cannot tell which cats can spread the disease to you.”

While cat scratch disease is treatable in healthy human beings, it requires quite a bit of time (between two and four months) to fully leave one’s body. Usually, CSD will vacate the system on its own, though occasionally, azithromycin is used to speed up the pace of healing time. For those who have undergone organ transplants, cancer treatments or have HIV/AIDS, CSD has a stronger chance of causing health complications. Thus, it is better to do what you can to avoid infection altogether by keeping CSD out of your, and your feline’s life, from the get go.

“It is believed that the main route of transmission [of cat scratch disease] among cats is via feces from infected cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis),” says Dr. Ashley Hughes, DVM at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, D.C. “Humans can become infected if a cat scratch is infected with flea feces or a bite wound is contaminated by blood from flea feces or an infected cat. If a scratch or bite occurs, washing it well should prevent transmission of disease.”

Given the fact that cat fleas and flea feces are most often the culprit behind cat scratch disease infections, the number one way to prevent the infection – in both you and your cat – is to keep kitty on strong flea and tick control year-round and to practice good hygiene. Thoroughly cleanse all cat bites and/or scratches immediately after they have been acquired with soap and water.

“Avoid ‘rough play’ with cats – especially kittens,” says Beck. “This includes any activity that may lead to cat scratches and bites. Do not allow cats to lick open wounds that you may have. Control fleas. And if you develop an infection (with pus and pronounced swelling) where you were scratched or bitten by a cat, or if you develop symptoms, including fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue, contact your physician.”

Cat scratch disease has the potential to cause complications in your life, but by taking the proper precautions, it is simple to keep the infection away from you and your kitty counterpart!

Erika Sorocco is a freelance writer and member of the Cat Writers' Association living in Southern California. Her work has appeared in numerous publications both nationally and internationally.

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Liz    International

9/29/2015 7:32:11 PM

CSD has made my life a living HELL for the past fifteen years!! Having a cat of my own, and always being around cats at the barn where my daughter had her horse, I never dreamed I'd get so sick because of a cat scratch. When I first became ill, the doctors at the hipospital were unable to diagnose what was wrong with me. For the next five years I had many doctors tell me I was suffering everything from Rheumatiod Arthritis, Lupus, Diabetes, and I was perhaps imagining it all. Yet every four to six months this dreaded "illness" would return and each time I would be sicker than the last time. After years of suffering and trying in vain to try and find out what was wrong with me, I finally went to see a Naturopathic Doctor. Thank God I took that step!! He thought I might have Lyme disease based on my symptoms, and the fact that I'd been bitten by a tick in Kentuvky years earlier. So, throwing cost to the wind I contacted a lab in California and arranged with them to run a whole battery of tests for me. And I do mean a WHOLE battery!! It cost me almost two thousand dollars, but they were tests the health department in Canada refused to do for me!! One month later I received my results. Everything was negative with the exception of Bartonella Hensela CSD. I had FINALLY found out what was wrong with me!! My emotions were very mixed. I was happy and sad at the same time, Sad because I had this awful parasite, but oh, so happy that I finally had an answer for this terrible disease that had, at times, almost taken my life. Cats are wonderful companions but everyone should be aware that thus disease is out there and does NOT only strike those with AIDS or with compromised immune systems. If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone. To take this disease lightly is playing with fire. Once you have it, it's too late. Get your cat tested ASAP. Whether it's a kitten or not. Even a coworker could have a cat and carry a flea into the workplace, which I've seen happen. It's always best to err on the side of caution.

Michelle    Gardena, CA

8/5/2013 3:33:46 PM

Your Article is very Helpful and kind of calms this fear that I have just wondering what did this stray cat give me due to feeling Ill after receiving a scratch a Flea Bite.
I am so glad to know the disease is "Treatable."

Heather    Lakeland, FL

4/1/2012 8:05:24 PM

My daughter had CSD when she was 8 years old. She started having severe headaches, vomiting, fever that was on and off. She also became very combative. The symptoms started in October shortly after we took in a stray kitten. In February she developed a swollen lymphnode on her collar bone. Her doctor had her tested but it came back negative for CSD so the doctor sent us to a childrens cancer center. The doctor there told us that it didn't look like cancer and called her doctor to consult. That's when we found out that they retested the sample again and this time it did test posative for CSD. My daughter was on strong antibiotics for about 4 months. Her lymphnode grew and grew until it finally burst. The doctor told us that it was doing it's job of collecting the poison in her body and to leave it alone and let it do its job. That was several years ago and she is fine now.

Janice    E Stroudsburg, PA

3/29/2011 11:30:18 AM

I also had swollen lymph nodes in the same two locations (armpit and inside elbow) which become rock like and were surgically removed. Many years later I developed lymphedema which the doctor feels was caused by the CSD. This conditions is now permanent.

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