In 1978, rocker Ted Nugent had a hit single with the song Cat Scratch Fever. Each year about 24,000 families learn that cat scratch fever isn’t just a song. It’s a real disease that can, in rare cases, cause serious complications.

Lynn Hampton grew concerned when she noticed that a scratch on her young daughter’s arm appeared to continue growing larger, even 2 days after the family cat had scratched her. She took her daughter to the pediatrician where she learned that her daughter had been infected with a bacterial affliction called cat scratch disease. Lynn was relieved to learn that in most healthy people, the disease is not serious. She was also surprised to find out that such a disease existed.

Cat scratch disease is transmitted to humans when a cat that is infected with the Bartonella hensalae virus passes that virus through a bite or scratch. Some experts think that the infection may have some connection to fleas. There is no evidence that a human can get cat scratch disease by being bitten by a flea that has also bitten an infected cat.

The disease is passed from cat to human through bites or scratches. Kittens tend to be more prone to having Bartonella hensalae, but the disease can be passed from an adult cat as well.

People of all ages can become infected, but children under 10 years of age get the disease more than any other age group. This is likely because young children have more of a tendency to play roughly with cats, resulting in bites and/or scratches.

While the disease is usually not serious, a study done in 2001 by the Center for Disease Control noted that of 32 children diagnosed with cat scratch disease at a Houston hospital, 14 of those children were hospitalized. The disease can also cause serious complications for anyone who has a compromised immune system.

Since the virus is not harmful to cats and does not make them ill, there are no signs that your cat could be infected with Bartonella hensalae. Even though there are no visible signs that your cats may be infected, there are some things that you can do to minimize the chance that you or someone in your family will get cat scratch disease.

First, it’s never a good idea to rough play with kittens or cats. This can often lead to biting and scratching. Instead, be sure that all members of your family understand that it is important to be gentle with cats, and any other animals in your home.

Next, because there is a possible connection between flea infestation and Bartonella hensalae, do all that you can to control fleas. Using a monthly topical flea control product, such as Frontline for cats, is one of the best ways to prevent flea infestation. If your cat is already infested then you will need to deal with the flea problem and then begin applying the monthly topical solution.

Thirdly, never allow a cat to lick an open wound or sore as the bacteria could possibly be passed in this manner.

Lastly, if your cat does scratch you, wash the scratch thoroughly with warm water and soap. You need to wash the scratch immediately in order to reduce your chances of being infected.

If someone in your family has recently suffered a cat scratch or bite, here are some symptoms to watch for that could indicate cat scratch disease.

  • A red area surrounding a scratch or bite that continues to grow larger after 24 hours.
  • A cat scratch that does not heal in the expected timeframe.
  • Abdominal pain that is not accompanied by fever, diarrhea or vomiting.
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Painful lymph nodes
  • Red eyes, or drainage from the eyes
  • Pain in the bones or joints

If any of the above symptoms are present, you should contact your physician immediately. Diagnosis is based on the fact that you were scratched or bitten by a kitten or cat along with presenting some of the above symptoms. The doctor may also choose to do a simple blood test to verify the diagnosis.

For most people, the disease clears up without any treatment. Others will require the use of an antibiotic. Also, if the lymph nodes fail to drain on their own, or if the swelling is particularly painful, he may drain the lymph nodes by using a needle.

Some people will experience complications from the disease. Possible complications include inflammation of the retina or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). These complications are rare and occur in less than 5% of people diagnosed with cat scratch disease. Other complications include bone lesions or problems with various major organs.

There is no need to destroy a cat that has the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease. Even if someone in your home has been infected, instituting common sense precautions is the best way to prevent it from happening again. Talk to your vet to see if he feels that a round of antibiotics for your cat would be helpful.

The antibiotics would only be to rid the cat of the Bartonella hensalae bacteria so it could not infect you. There is debate as to whether or not such treatment is effective, which is why you should seek advice from your vet.

Cat scratch disease is usually not serious. Still, prevention is better than seeking a cure, so take the necessary precautions to keep your family – and your family pets – healthy and happy.


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