HEALTH & CARE

Cat Scratch Disease: Symptoms, Treatments, and Precautions

Cat Scratch Disease
Steve Corelli
Written by Steve Corelli

Cat scratch disease or cat scratch fever is a rare, infectious disease caused by the scratch or bite of a cat. It is caused by the bacteria called Bartonella henselae, which is found in an infected cat’s saliva. All age groups are at risk, but people with a weakened immune system are more prone to complications.

People handle cats all the time, but it doesn’t mean that every cat bite or scratch is infectious. On the contrary, healthy cats do not have this bacteria in their saliva, and there is no risk of getting infected. Every cat owner knows that getting a few scratches here and there is nothing to worry about, but precautions should be made to make sure your cat is healthy and disease free.

The biggest concern people have when it comes to diseases cats can transmit to people is the risk it presents to children. They are at greater risk than adults. There are steps you can take to prevent unpleasant situations, though. In this article, we will discuss the symptoms and treatment of cat scratch disease in both cats and humans, the necessary precautions, and the aftermath.

Cat Scratch Disease in Cats

Here you’ll find all the information you need to know about the cat scratch disease—the causes, symptoms, treatment, as well as how to prevent it.

#1: Causes

cat itching

Cat scratch fever is caused by bacteria in a cat’s saliva. It’s a gram-negative bacteria called Bartonella henselae. Research done by vets and immunologists during the 1950s showed that cats are often carriers of this pathogen. Kittens are more likely to transmit the disease than older cats because of their immature immune system allowing higher numbers of this bacteria in their blood.

Another way to contract cat scratch disease is through common vectors (carriers) such as fleas and ticks. Both cats and humans can get infected through flea feces containing the aforementioned bacteria.

Ticks can also transmit the disease when biting a human or a cat. Other insects can also act as vectors—mostly spiders, as recent research has shown. Cat scratch disease cannot be transferred from one human to another.

Since the bacteria is very easily transmitted through common vectors, it is estimated that more than 40% of domestic cats have or have had this disease at one point or another. It is most common in kittenhood and can spontaneously disappear in healthy individuals.

#2: Symptoms

cat having a fever

Most infected cats don’t show any cat scratch disease symptoms, but there are cases when you can spot slight changes in behavior or physical condition. Most of them are very mild and can basically be symptoms of any type of medical condition, but let’s take a look at the most common ones:

  • Fever. There are cases of recently infected cats getting a fever that lasts 2-3 days. It varies from a very mild fever to a high one, followed by dehydration, dry snout, and blurry eyes.
  • Vomiting. Frequent vomiting can also be a sign of infection. Combined with low appetite and overall exhaustion, it is a clear sign that your cat has a health problem. Take her to the vet immediately, and ask for a blood test.
  • Swollen lymph nodes. This is a very sure sign of Bartonella infection. This bacteria travels through the cardiovascular system and accumulates in the lymph nodes, causing inflammation and infection that can easily be spotted in the armpits, under the neck and jaw, and in the groin area.
  • Red eyes. Some cats have this symptom after 3-14 days of getting infected. Red, irritated eyes can be caused by many infections, and Bartonella is one of them. This symptom, though, mostly occurs in kittens.
  • Mouth cavity inflammation. Red gums and difficulty while swallowing can also be one of the signs. Since this can also be caused by many other factors, make sure to take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

See Also: How to Tell If Your Cat is Sick

#3: Treatment

pills for a cat

The disease itself is not a big health issue for a healthy cat. The immune system usually neutralizes the bacteria on its own. However, some cats are more susceptible to complications and might need cat scratch disease treatment.

Cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV) already have a weakened immune response and might need antibiotics.

#4: Prevention

cat and a vet

Since there is no cat scratch fever vaccine for humans or cats at the moment, your best move would be to prevent the disease with usual methods.

  • Flea prevention. Most commonly used flea repellents today come in the form of collars, topical solutions, or oral medications. There are also sprays and other methods, but you should always choose the most reliable, durable method, especially if your cat is allowed outdoors. Never, under any circumstances, use a repellent for dogs without consulting the vet first. Some flea and tick repellents made for dogs have substances toxic for cats. These can cause severe neural, respiratory, and gastrointestinal damage, or even death.
  • Tick prevention. It’s best to prevent it than cure it, because those nasty little parasites can cause a lot more serious issues than a Bartonella infection. As we mentioned in the previous section, there are many methods for protecting your cat against fleas and ticks, and they usually come as a combo. This is also a great way to protect yourself from parasitic vectors because the cat won’t bring them into the house.
  • Regular (biannual) vet checkups. These go without saying. Every owner should bring his or her pet for a checkup twice a year. The vet will do all the usual blood tests, urine test if necessary, and check your pet’s overall condition.

Cat Scratch Disease in Humans

As we said, humans can contract this disease by getting scratched or bitten by an infected cat. In most cases, the infection will disappear on its own after a couple of weeks without any symptoms, but there are certain cases when complications occur.

#1: Symptoms

cat scratching a woman's hand

Symptoms of cat scratch disease depend on a lot of factors. They are usually mild, but this disease can, although very rarely, cause very serious medical conditions. We will list all of them, naming the symptoms and possible complications.

These symptoms usually occur 3-14 days after the bite.

  • A non-painful blister or a bump near or at the scratch/bite site. This is called “the inoculation lesion” and is the epicenter of the infection.
  • Red, swollen area around the bite/scratch that persists more than a couple of hours after the incident.
  • Fatigue, headaches, and joint pain, similar to symptoms of the flu.
  • Swollen lymph nodes. This usually occurs a couple of weeks after the infection. This is the most common sign of cat scratch disease. Lymph nodes are responsible for maintaining our immune system and controlling bacteria and other harmful outsiders. Usually, the swelling will occur in the nearest lymph node from where the scratch is, making the node tender, lumpy, and even red and filled with fluid. The node usually remains swollen for a couple of weeks before going back to normal.
  • Low fever (not above 100.4 °F).
  • Sore throat.
  • Rash at the scratch area.
  • Abdominal or back pain.

#2: Possible Complications

Complications are extremely rare but may occur if an individual has a weakened immune system—individuals with diabetes, lupus, HIV, AIDS, and other conditions.

  • Encephalopathy. This term covers many conditions that affect the function of the brain or changes in its structure. It can be caused by genetic factors, environmental conditions, or infections. If the Bartonella bacteria spreads to the brain, it can cause encephalitis. Although this complication is very rare and usually doesn’t occur in healthy individuals, it can cause very serious problems, such as permanent brain damage or death.
  • Neuroretinitis. This condition is a name for inflammation of the optic nerve and retina. If the bacteria somehow reaches the eye, it can cause complications and vision impairment such as blurred vision and eye inflammation, redness, and swelling. It can be treated successfully, and the vision usually recovers fully after the infection is treated.
  • Parinaud oculoglandular syndrome. This is another infection of the eye. It looks very similar to pink eye but is caused specifically by Bartonella bacteria. The cause can be a direct contact of the eye with the bacteria, or it can reach the eye through the bloodstream. Either way, this infection is very easily treated with antibiotics and doesn’t have consequences.

See Also: How to Treat Conjunctivitis in Cats

It is important to note that all of these complications are extremely rare and usually have a precursor, as already mentioned.

Children are more susceptible to complications than adult humans, so take precautions and make sure to react quickly if you notice any signs or symptoms that point to cat scratch disease. All complications can be easily avoided if you are diligent, and treatment is very simple.

#3: Treatment

sanitize the wound

If you or your child was scratched or bitten by your own cat, make sure to sanitize the wound immediately. Medical alcohol, iodine, or any other antibacterial agent will do. It also helps to take a photo of the affected area, so you can keep track of possible changes, redness, and rashes.

If the cat was feral, it is very important to go to the doctor immediately. Cat scratch disease is just one of possible diseases a stray cat can carry, and you can’t know the animal’s health condition and history. Antibiotics will be prescribed, and you can go home safe and carefree.

It is very important not to jump to the antibiotics right away, especially if you know the history of the cat. Only 5-14% of people who contract the disease actually need medical treatment.

There are a couple of possible antibiotic options for treating the cat scratch disease.

  • Azithromycin. Azithromycin is a wide range of antibiotics used to treat various bacterial infections, and is most commonly prescribed to patients. It is safe to use by pregnant women since there are no teratogenic side effects (meaning there are no physiological side effects on the baby), and can be safely given to children.
  • Doxycycline. Doxycycline is usually given to patients who have more severe symptoms like those mentioned above, because it can penetrate the eye and central nervous system tissues. However, it is not safe for all patients and all age groups, so the physician is the only one who can decide whether it’s safe to administer.
  • Tetracycline can be used topically to prevent the spreading of the infection, as it is a wide range of antibiotics and easily available.

Usually, there is no treatment needed as the organism is very much capable of dealing with this common bacteria on its own, but if you notice any symptoms, you should consult a doctor.

#4: Precautions

cat licking a finger

As the saying goes, “Better safe than sorry.” Here are some easy steps you can take to avoid the conundrum.

  • Adopt an older cat (over a year old) if any of your family members have a weak immunity or immunodeficiency. A large percentage of kittens who were not born and raised in a house already have Bartonella in their system.
  • No rough play. This especially goes for kids. We know it takes a lot of time and effort, but do not let young children play with cats unsupervised. Kids don’t have the motoric skills of grown-ups, and can easily agitate the cat or hurt her, and most cats will retaliate, no matter how even-tempered they are.
  • Don’t let a cat lick open wounds. This is the easiest way to get all kinds of bacteria directly in your bloodstream. Cats, just like humans (although humans are much riskier), have many harmful bacteria in their mouths. You don’t want those. As a side note, don’t lick an open wound yourself either; you might regret it.
  • Be careful with stray or feral cats. They can be nasty while defending their territory, and will most likely see you as an intruder. Don’t risk it if you’re not absolutely sure what you’re doing.
  • Wash your hands. Make this a habit for you and your children. It’s not just about catching a disease—it’s also about hair and other possible risks. Snuggles are nice, but make sure to wash your hands before you start handling food or touching your face.
  • Prevent flea disasters. This is easily solvable by getting a flea repellent for your cat, but if things go south, make sure to act very quickly. Vacuum frequently, call the pest control company if needed, but don’t let yourself end up with a flea infestation.

Wrap Up

cat's paw

A scratch here and there is not a big deal. If your cat scratched you or your kid, it doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the cat. Far from it. If your cat is protected from parasites, there is nothing to worry about. Accidents happen, and a few marks on your hands are just proof that you had fun playing last night.

Did this article answer your questions about the cat scratch disease? Share your opinion in the comments section below! Next, if you’re looking for more preventive solutions, check out our article on declawing cat alternatives that are more humane and can keep you, your cat, and your family safe.

About the author
Steve Corelli
Steve Corelli

Steve Corelli is a Pet Nutrition Expert from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of many nutritional strategies for different breeds and a member of some Pet Food development teams. His Maine Coon Stephan, as you might guess, is always well-fed.

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