Cat Scratch Disease — What It Means For You And Your Cat

Updated Sep. 22, 2016

You’ve probably heard of the disease. It’s known as cat scratch disease, or sometimes cat scratch fever. The disease gets a fair amount of media attention and cats are often blamed as the culprit for the infection. However, there’s much more to the story.

What Is Cat Scratch Disease?

Cat scratch disease is more likely to pose a threat to you than it is to your cat. In people, cat scratch disease usually starts with a swelling (known as a papule) at the site of infection/contamination. The local lymph node may swell and become somewhat painful. Flu-like symptoms may develop. In most cases though, the infection will resolve without incident.

Immunosuppressed people can suffer much more serious effects from cat scratch disease, however. In these people, the infection may invade the body leading to a number of potential syndromes, including encephalitis, heart valve infection, and other conditions.

The disease is caused by a bacteria known as Bartonella henselae, which is carried by fleas.

How Do People Get Cat Scratch Disease?

People become infected with the organism when a cat scratch is inoculated with infected flea dirt. If your cat's claws become contaminated with flea dirt, you may be exposed to the disease if your cat subsequently scratches you. Bite wounds can also be contaminated and cause cat scratch disease. However, the common denominator is the flea. Without fleas, there is no contamination of any wound with flea dirt and no infection.

What If My Cat Is Infected with Bartonella henselae? Will He Get Sick?

The vast majority of infected cats remain asymptomatic. You may never even know that your cat has become infected. There has been a link made between a condition of the mouth known as stomatitis and infection with Bartonella henselae. However, the significance of this link is not known and it may not be significant.

Most infected cats never require any treatment for disease. Treatment of infected cats does not reduce the potential for disease spread to people.

How Can I Protect Myself and My Family from Cat Scratch Disease?

The best form of prevention is flea control. Because fleas are required for the disease to spread, keeping your cat free of fleas is essential to protecting yourself and your family.

Avoiding scratches and bites by learning to play safely with your cat can help as well. Learn to recognize the changes in your cat’s body language that indicate that your cat is becoming aggravated and likely to attempt to scratch or bite. Never play with your cat with your bare hand. Use a toy or suitable substitute to avoid accidental scratches.

In addition, cats younger than one year are more likely to be infected. If someone in your family is immunocompromised, you may want to consider adopting a more mature cat to reduce the potential for disease. Healthy adults with strong immune systems are rarely at risk though.

Now you know the truth about cat scratch disease. Though cats are often involved in its spread to infected people, the cat is not solely responsible. Fleas play at least an equally important role in the spread.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Jagodka / Shutterstock


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Lorie Huston, DVM


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