New Findings on Cat-Scratch Disease Every Pet Parent Should Know

PetMD Editorial
Published: September 21, 2016
Share this:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a study regarding cat-scratch disease (CSD) in the United States. For anyone who lives with a cat or comes into contact with cats, the findings are worth taking note of for their own health.

"There are millions of cats in the United States and they are beloved cats for many people, but it's helpful for people to be aware of how they can prevent cat-scratch disease—and disease in general," says Dr. Christina A. Nelson of the CDC, who conducted the study alongside Dr. Paul S. Mead and Shubhayu Saha. 

According to the CDC, CSD is an infectious disease caused by the Bartonella henselae bacteria, which is spread to cats by the common cat flea. CSD can be transmitted to humans by scratches, bites, and, in some rare cases, licks, if a cat licks an open wound or abrasion. (It is also of note that there is some evidence that CSD can be transferred to humans while snuggling and kissing kittens.) 

So how would one know that they are suffering from CSD? The typical resonse to CSD includes lymph node swelling and, in some cases, fatigue. "An atypical response to cat-scratch disease can take many different forms," Nelson explains. "It can infect bones, and it can also—in rare circumstances—infect the brain and heart valves, which may require surgery." 

The study, which looked at cases of CSD in people from 2005 to 2013, found that during their case study period, the "highest average annual CSD incidence for outpatients and inpatients was among children 5–9 years of age." They also discovered that most cases were found in the southern United States. 

Nelson tells petMD that this is because fleas (who carry the bacteria to cats) prefer the moist conditions of the south as opposed to more arid climates. She also theorizes that because children are more likely to play with cats, their risk of being scratched (even accidentally) increases. 

One of the more notable findings in the study is that while CSD cases were thought to occur mainly in the fall due to flea life cycles and because it follows summer kitten adoptions (kittens are more likely to carry CSD because they are not yet immune to the bacteria), January is when most cases occur.

The reason as to why January is the height of infection could not be explained through the data, but Nelson and her colleagues think it could be due to people being indoors and around more cats during the winter, as well as the rise of kittens being given as pets during the holiday season. 

While CSD is something every pet parent should be aware of, the CDC wants to remind cat lovers that it should not be a deterrent from having a feline in their lives, but rather a reminder of why prevention and care is so important.    

"Flea treatment for your cat can reduce the risk of harboring the bacteria," Nelson says, adding that pet parents should take their cat to the veterinarian to get the best flea treatment suited for their pet

While you can show your cat affection, be sure to play with it nicely to avoid any possible instances in which you could be scratched. After handling or playing with your cat, Nelson says, you should wash your hands or any skin that may have a break in it to wash the bacteria away. 

Nelson says that outdoor cats, particularly those that hunt, may be more likely to be exposed to CSD because they are exposed to other wild animals. Indoor cats have a lower risk of harboring CSD. She also points out that a declawed cat could still carry the disease, and while theoretically they are less likely to transmit it to a person (though they still could through a bite or lick), the CDC does not support declawing as a preventative measure

"Pets mean a lot to people and to families, and they have a lot of benefits," Nelson said. "We don’t want people to get rid of their cats, just for them to take the simple measures to keep healthy." 

Image via Shutterstock