Cat scratch fever, or cat scratch disease, is a relatively uncommon illness that pet parents can pick up from just playing and cuddling with their feline family members. Even though it's rare, it's important that pet parents are aware of the signs of this disease and how it can be prevented.
Causes of Cat Scratch Fever
The disease is caused by bacteria called Bartonella henselae. Cats usually acquire infection from flea bites, but most don't show any signs of illness. They become carriers of the infection, and some studies suggest that up to one-third of healthy cats have Bartonella in their blood. If a cat should become unwell from the infection, they usually only have a fever for a few days, then recover without treatment.
Bartonella can be transmitted to people via a scratch from an infected cat. Anyone is at risk of infection, but effects are greater in youngsters and people with a suppressed immune system. Although the bacteria spread between cats via fleas, there's no evidence that there is any direct infection of people from a flea bite.
Symptoms of Cat Scratch Fever
Symptoms in humans are a raised swelling or pustule at the scratch site and swollen lymph nodes in the area of infection. These usually occur up to three weeks after infection. Less commonly, weight loss and a sore throat can be seen. The disease may also affect the liver and spleen, but this isn't obvious on an external examination. Symptoms are vague and non-specific and can occur quite some time after the cat scratch; this means it's not always easy to diagnose this illness. Doctors can perform a blood test to check for infection and confirm the diagnosis that way.
Treatment of Cat Scratch Fever
Most people who develop cat scratch fever don't need treatment and the illness resolves on its own. However, immunocompromised people, such as those being treated for cancer and those with human immunodeficiency virus, can suffer from more serious effects such as inflammation of the brain and eye, and infection in the bone. These people need treatment with antibiotics to clear the infection from their body.
How to Prevent Cat Scratch Fever
As with any illness or infection, prevention is always better than cure. To avoid cat scratch fever, don't engage in any activities that could result in contact between a sharp feline claw and your skin. This means avoiding rough play that encourages a cat to scratch and teaching your cat not to pounce and bite at your ankles. Cats' claws can be trimmed to reduce the risk of skin damage. Another option is the application of soft nail caps for cats. They still allow a cat to extend and retract their nails and they can still scratch – but no damage occurs. Good flea control is essential to prevent cats being bitten by infected fleas and sharing the bacteria with their pet parents. These steps are particularly important for people whose weak immune systems leave them at risk of severe effects of infection.
Cats enrich our lives in so many ways. The likelihood of becoming unwell because of Bartonella is small and shouldn't deter people from enjoying the companionship of a feline friend. However, it's still a potential issue for those whose pre-existing health issues put them at risk. Minimizing this risk is important in those households where people are susceptible to the more severe effects of infection.