Can your Kitten Kill You? The Cat-Scratch Disease
Did you know that a cat scratch can produce symptoms that mimic those of some cancers – and that it can land you in a hospital? Meet bartonellosis, or the infamous cat-scratch fever.
Does your cat have bartonella?
According to statistics, 40-50% of all cats carry the Bartonella henselae bacterium at some point in their life. To be precise, it is not cats who are true carriers, but cat fleas. Bartonella is found in flea feces, which often get stuck under the cat’s nails or even in its teeth. Cats don’t usually get ill because of bartonella, but it can happen. Bartonella can be transmitted to humans as a result of a scratch or bite (such diseases are called zoonotic). Though most cat scratches do not result in any symptoms, if you do get cat-scratch fever, it can occasionally be serious: around 4% of people have to be hospitalized, and in very rare cases complications can lead to death
Recognizing cat-scratch fever
The first symptoms appear after a few days, and some of them can persist for months:
- Lesion or blister (papule) – it is red and covered with a crust, looking like an infected bite; develops 3-10 days after the scratch in 50% of patients.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, under arms, or in the groin – they swell one or two weeks after the scratch and can persist for months; at first they are firm and hurt when you touch them, then they can fill with liquid and drain when you press on them.
- Fever – usually between 37 C and 37.5 C (can persist for weeks);
- General fatigue and malaise.
Bartonellosis mimicking other diseases
Cat-scratch disease symptoms are very non-specific (especially if you don’t have a lesion) and mimic some other conditions. The only way to know for sure if it is bartonellosis is to perform a special blood test and possibly a lymph node biopsy (when nodes are swollen). Some conditions on the differential diagnosis list include:
- Brucellosis (transmitted from livestock)
- Toxoplasmosis (causes swollen glands, fatigue, and fever, can be dangerous to pregnant women)
- Tularemia (or rabbit fever, transmitted via tick bites);
- Sarcoidosis (autoimmune disease that can attack various organs and suddenly go in remission);
- Lyme disease (tick-borne, causes similar skin rash)
- Hodgkin lymphoma (causes swollen glands, itch, fever, and fatigue).
Treatment and prevention
In most people, cat-scratch disease requires only application of topical heat, rest, and drinking lots of water, as well as painkillers when necessary. Many doctors prescribe antibiotics (especially Zithromax or Cipro), though there is no clear proof of their effectiveness against bartonella (side effects of antibiotics can be worse than symptoms themselves). However, you must still go to the doctor if you’ve been scratched or bitten and develop symptoms!
If you have a cat, it is difficult to exclude the risk completely, but follow this advice:
- Avoid rough play with the cat that can lead to scratches;
- Don’t let your cat hunt outdoors;
- Check for fleas, use anti-flea treatments;
- Vacuum-clean the carpets frequently (there can be fleas);
- If you are scratched, wash the spot and apply antiseptic.
Note that people with a weakened immune system (due to AIDS/HIV, chemotherapy, or diabetes) are particularly susceptible and can develop more severe symptoms.
Cat-scratch fever can be very annoying, but it’s defintely not a reason not to keep cats! All pets carry diseases – and so do people. You just have to exercise caution when cuddling with your kitty!