Cat Scratch Fever

Dr Mc Blog

July 9, 2015
My mother wanted more articles on cats, but this time she’s gone too far. While her cats swirled about her feet in a breakfast feeding frenzy one nudged her along a little too hard, breaking skin. Three days later she almost landed in the hospital as her leg swelled up, an angry red color.

Diagnosis : Cat Scratch Fever.

Cat Scratch Fever, more properly Cat Scratch Disease, is caused by a little known bacteria, Bartonella henselae. Because cats themselves rarely suffer any effects from this bacteria, your veterinarian is not “looking” for it. Oddly enough, statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Georgia report that up to 40 % of cats may harbor this bacteria on their claws or teeth sometime during their life, with the most likely period being when they are kittens. This, of course, is when young cats are most playful, most likely to play bite or scratch during a wrestling match. If your skin is broken the Bartonella bacteria has an opportunity to start an infection in you – the human. The cat will be fine.

Even more oddly, your cat probably picked the bacteria up when it was scratching at a flea! Infected fleas carry the bacteria, and your cat will get flea dirt caught under its nails or in its’ teeth. Once a person’s skin is broken, the bacteria is transmitted through the saliva or from under the cats nail. Even allowing a cat to lick an open wound which you may have (irritated mosquito bite?) may transfer the bacteria. We’re back to flea control, again! In our mild climate, fleas are a reality year round in Merced. If you think you have them under control, keep treating – keep it that way!

Washing any scratch or bite wound will prevent most people from developing an infection. Once Bartonella has taken hold, it can be readily treated with antibiotics by your physician. Your cat does not require treatment. On rare occasion an infection with Bartonella can land a person in the hospital for intensive care.

Does Bartonella EVER bother the cat? Maybe. There are tests to demonstrate if anti-Bartonella antibodies are present in the blood stream. This only proves exposure to the bacteria, not current infection. Rarely an ill cat, perhaps with an eye infection, may be tested for Bartonella. If you have high concern about acquiring a new cat or are faced with a family member who is immunocompromised and must guard against any disease encounter you can request these tests for your cat and even a course of treatment as a preventative, though it can’t guarantee against future re-infections.

My mothers’ cats are on flea control and are older, but one of them goes outdoors and inevitably brings fleas back into the house. I knew the source of infection and how to contain it. I must admit it was interesting to follow how her physician handled it. As a veterinarian, I am familiar with the rejection one must inevitably face when serving in a “helping profession”. Everyone wants to help. They want to help even more when it’s outside their scope of expertise – it’s so tempting to give advice! I am sometimes the last stop in a desperate quest to heal a pet, after the owner has purchased a variety of compelling exotic potions over-the-counter or whipped up a guaranteed home remedy recommended by the neighbor’s cousin passing through town.  My mothers’ leg improved slowly but surely under the extremely watchful eye of her physician (he even offered to make a house call to check on her over the weekend). So it was with some interest as I followed her recovery to hear her inform me that she was going to have the gardener check her leg that day. That gave me pause. I double-checked. The gardener? I silently chewed this over in my mind. She was seeing her physician every other day, if not daily. Her veterinarian daughter was stopping by every night. The gardener?  It felt good to know these things didn’t happen just to me. I wondered if the gardener would argue the merits of herbal remedies….? I could tell this was a turning point for the better in her case and that I could step out now. And her physician? A miraculous cure. My hat’s off to you, Dr. De La Pena.

Christine B. McFadden, DVM
Valley Animal Hospital, Merced

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