Whenever I hear the phrase “cat scratch fever,” I think of the classic Ted Nugent song from 1977. But if you’re around cats, it’s helpful to remember that cat scratch fever, also known as cat scratch disease, is a type of bacterial infection one can get through the bite or scratch of a cat.
The bacteria, called Bartonella henselae, can enter the human body at the site of a bite or scratch and cause symptoms such as swelling and pain. As the infection worsens, a person can experience headache, fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, or bone, joint, or abdominal pain.
As with any infection, those who have compromised immune systems, like those with HIV/AIDS, or receiving treatment of cancer, can develop serious complications. Most healthy individuals can fight off the infection within a few weeks.
Although it is believed that the bacteria is passed via a scratch if the cat licks its paws, there are still questions about whether this is the only form of transmission. Fleas also carry the bacteria, but so far, there are no studies showing definitively that fleas pass on the bacteria to humans. It’s also not certain if the fleas pass the bacteria to cats.
It’s also possible to get the infection without getting bitten or scratched. For example, if the cat that is carrying the bacteria licks its fur, then rubs against a human friend, somehow transferring the bacteria into the human’s eyes, it can get passed on that way. Children are more likely to contract the disease than adults.
If you’ve been bitten or scratched by a cat, wash and disinfect the wound immediately. If the wound becomes a sore or blister within a few days and you begin experiencing some of the other symptoms mentioned above, check in with your doctor.
Most people won’t need medication to fight off the infection, but some may need a course of antibiotics. A simple blood test can determine if you have cat scratch disease. In some cases, swollen and painful lymph nodes may be drained.
The best way to prevent this disease is to avoid cats, or if you own cats, don’t provoke or play roughly with them. Kittens usually have a higher rate of infection, so be extra careful when playing with kittens.
If you happen to have an open cut or wound, be sure not to let your cat lick it. The cats themselves show no symptoms of carrying the bacteria, so just be cautious. Also, try to keep your cat(s) and home free of fleas.