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What Is Cat Scratch Fever?

by Naomi Rogers
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Cat Scratch Fever is more than just a catchy 70’s rock song. In fact, Cat Scratch Disease — as it is known in the medical community — can be downright deadly for an unlucky few.

What is this illness? Who is most at risk? And how can you protect yourself and your family? Keep reading to find out.

cat scratch fever

What Is Cat Scratch Fever?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cat scratch fever is an infection caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae which cats get from flea bites or from flea droppings entering the bloodstream through a wound.

Fleas cause cats to lick, chew, and scratch at their skin to relieve the itch. In doing so, they get flea dirt under their nails and between their teeth. If the fleas are infected with Bartonella, the cat will likely get it, too. Outdoor cats can also become infected by fighting with other cats already carrying Bartonella.

Since fleas are such a common problem, about 40% of cats carry B. henselae at some time in their lives. Most never show a single symptom of illness to their unsuspecting humans.

How Is The Disease Transmitted To People?

As the name suggests, cat scratch fever most often infects humans through bites or scratches from a cat carrying the B. henselae bacteria. Bartonella is concentrated in the saliva so cats can also infect humans by licking open wounds on their skin or getting saliva into their eyes through a lick or sneeze. In rare cases, fleas may directly transmit Bartonella to a human. 

Surprisingly, kittens under one-year-old are more likely to cause cat scratch fever than older cats. This is because they are still learning predatory behavior and tend to bite and scratch more during play.

What Are The Symptoms Of Cat Scratch Fever?

Signs of cat scratch fever typically appear between three to 14 days after the initial bite or scratch and include red raised lesions that may or may not have pus. Fever, headache, poor appetite, and feelings of exhaustion are also common. The major hallmark of the disease is swollen, tender lymph nodes near the site of the original bite or scratch.

Rare Complications Of Cat Scratch Fever

As frightening as the disease sounds, the CDC reports that only about 500 people require hospitalization for cat scratch fever each year. However, in rare cases, there can be serious complications involving the brain, eyes, heart, or other internal organs which may result in death. These complications are more likely to occur in children 5-14 years of age and people with weakened immune systems.

How Can You Protect Yourself & Your Family?

Anyone who spends time around cats is potentially at risk for cat scratch fever, but it is most common in children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. People who fall within these categories should take particular caution when interacting with cats and kittens. You can do this by:

  • Avoiding rough play
  • Not allowing cats to lick you
  • Keeping cats on a vet-approved flea preventative 

cat scratch fever

If you do suffer a bite or scratch, wash it thoroughly with soap and water then apply an antibacterial ointment like Neosporin. Keep the wound clean as it heals and monitor it for signs of infection. If the wound appears infected or you develop a fever or swollen lymph nodes, seek medical attention immediately.

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