Everyone who lives with a cat or spends time around cats has the potential to contract cat scratch fever. Cat scratch fever is also known as cat scratch disease (CSD) and it’s caused by a bacteria called Bartonella henselae. Luckily, the symptoms of cat scratch fever are easy to identify, and there are many ways to prevent the transmission of this bacteria in your family – including careful play, keeping your cat’s nails trimmed, and knowing what to do after a cat scratch or bite.
What Is Cat Scratch Fever?
Cat scratch fever is an infection that can cause a variety of symptoms in humans. To fully understand your risk level for this infection, let’s look at:
- The cause (the bacteria Bartonella henselae )
- How humans contract cat scratch fever
- How it’s diagnosed and treated
The Bacteria: Bartonella Henselae
Nearly half of all cats and kittens have the bacteria Bartonella henselae living under their claws or in their mouths. Cats often contract the bacteria from fleas or other cats. The Bartonella family of bacteria is also responsible for two other diseases in humans: trench fever, which is caused by Bartonella quintana, and Carrión’s disease, caused by Bartonella bacilliformis.
The name henselae is a tribute to Diane Hensel, a clinic technician at a laboratory at University Hospitals in Oklahoma City, who gathered many strains of the bacteria during a local outbreak in 1985.
Bartonella henselae can only be passed from cats to other cats and from cats to humans – it can not be transferred between humans. The most common way to transmit the fever is indicated by the name: a cat scratch or bite. Because Bartonella henselae lives in your cat’s mouth and under their claws, the bacteria can enter your bloodstream when your cat breaks your skin with its teeth or claws.
It’s also worth noting that many cat scratches and bites do not result in cat scratch fever, even if the cat is a carrier of the bacteria. If the wound is cleaned quickly and cared for properly, infection isn’t likely.
But a scratch or bite is not the only way to get cat scratch fever – you can also be infected if a cat licks an open wound, like a small cut on your hand, or somehow their saliva gets into your eyes (maybe through a sudden kitty sneeze). Fleas and ticks also carry Bartonella henselae, but it’s fairly uncommon for transmission to happen this way.
How the Fever Is Diagnosed and Treated
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about 12,000 people report cat scratch fever cases annually, and 500 of those people are hospitalized for the infection. Cases are more common in the southeastern part of the US and among children ages 5 to 9 years old. Cat scratch fever tends to create more serious symptoms and complications in older men.
The symptoms of cat scratch fever are somewhat vague and can indicate a lot of different problems, so it’s unlikely that your doctor can diagnose this infection based only on your symptoms. A blood test is the only way to be sure that the bacteria is present in your bloodstream.
Most of the time, the Bartonella henselae treatment is simply to let the fever run its course. Your body’s immune system – if it’s normal and strong – will clear the infection within a few weeks. Sometimes, if the symptoms are serious or the individual has other health complications, a doctor might treat it with an antibiotic.
Symptoms of Cat Scratch Fever
The symptoms of cat scratch fever in humans are not particularly distinct, so CSD is sometimes misdiagnosed. If you are familiar with Bartonella henselae symptoms, you can help your doctor identify this issue and be more proactive in your healthcare.
What the Fever Looks Like in Cats
Felines usually don’t show symptoms when they carry Bartonella henselae, as they are generally unaffected by the bacteria. It’s really hard to know if a cat carries the bacteria without testing its mouth or claws. Because it’s so common – remember, almost half of all cats and kittens carry Bartonella henselae – it’s best to just assume your cat has the bacteria and could transmit it with a bite or scratch.
If a cat does show symptoms of an infection, it might develop a fever, seem tired or lethargic, have red eyes or swollen glands, and possibly have a decreased appetite. Usually, these symptoms will go away after a few days. These symptoms can indicate several health issues in a cat, so it’s best to contact your veterinarian if your cat displays any of these signs.
Symptoms of Cat Scratch Fever in Humans
The primary symptom of cat scratch fever will be a bump or blister located around the scratch or bite wound. Many people suffering from cat scratch fever also have swollen lymph nodes, often in the head, neck, or armpit area, depending on the location of the cat scratch. Infected individuals may also feel tired, have headaches, and possibly experience a low-grade fever.
Symptoms of the disease won’t develop until about three days after exposure. Some of the symptoms of this condition, such as swollen lymph nodes, can last a long time – up to several months. Cat scratch fever is sometimes diagnosed incorrectly when a person is suffering from Lyme disease or brucellosis.
The Potentially Serious Complications
Some severe cases of cat scratch fever will have more serious symptoms like a rash, chills, and pain in the abdomen, joints, and back. People with weak immune systems may have more serious complications with cat scratch fever. For older people and children under 5 years, the disease can have very dangerous implications for the health of a person’s organs.
How to Prevent Cat Scratch Fever in Your Family
The best way to prevent the transmission of cat scratch fever is by:
- Keeping your cat healthy
- Playing with them appropriately
- Keeping your cat inside
- Being careful with kittens and strays
- Knowing what to do after a cat scratch or bite
Play Gently with Your Cat and Use Toys
Cats are naturally inclined to scratch and bite, so it’s best to use toys when playing with them. Creating a barrier of separation with a fuzzy feather toy or a laser pointer allows your cat to get exercise and mental stimulation without putting you at risk of a scratch or bite. When you use your hands to play with or pat your cat, be gentle and calm to avoid triggering a bite or scratch.
Keep Your Cat’s Nails Trimmed
One way to keep yourself safe from cat scratch fever is by keeping your cat’s nails healthy and trimmed. Cats who live outside get a natural nail trim by walking on rough surfaces, but outdoor cats also have a much shorter lifespan than indoor cats. If you choose to keep your cat indoors, they will need consistent nail care. Most cats require a little manicure every week or two, and this practice will greatly reduce the risk of cat scratch fever in your house.
Wash Your Hands After Kitty Playtime
Keeping your hands clean when you interact with your cat will ensure that the bacteria isn’t on your skin. It’s also just good practice to wash your hands before and after you play with your cat for the safety and health of both you and your pet.
Keep Your Cat Indoors and Use Flea Medication
Keeping your cat indoors lengthens their lifespan and keeps them generally more healthy and safe. It also reduces their exposure to Bartonella henselae. Because most cats contract the bacteria from fleas, using a reliable anti-flea medication is also a good precaution against cat scratch fever.
Take Additional Care with Kittens and Stray Cats
Kittens, as well as stray or feral cats that live outdoors, are more likely to carry Bartonella henselae. If you interact with cats that don’t live in your home, be especially careful not to get scratched or bitten. Precautions should be taken very seriously around small children and kittens, as this is where the “perfect storm” is likely to occur: kittens are both more likely to carry the bacteria and more likely to scratch and bite, and children are more susceptible to a serious case of the fever.
Know What to Do After a Cat Scratch or Bite
If you or someone in your family is scratched or bitten by a cat and blood is drawn, the wound should be cleaned with warm water and soap immediately. Cover the wound with a bandage for the first day or so, then let it breathe. If it hasn’t started to heal normally after a few days, or if any other symptoms appear, it’s time to contact the doctor.
Cat Scratch Fever Is Wholly Preventable
Luckily, cat scratch fever probably doesn’t represent a serious risk to you or your cat. Unless you or a family member is from a risk group like the elderly or young children, the Bartonella henselae bacteria won’t present any significant danger. Furthermore, if you are careful while playing with your cat, keep them indoors, and know what to do after a cat scratch, you can dramatically reduce the risk of contracting this disease.