Four of every 100,000 people in the United States have Cat Scratch Disease (CSD). Those most at risk live in the South and fall into the age groups of children between five and nine and female adults between 60 and 64. Also, those with compromised immune systems, such as those with Lyme disease, are more likely to contract it.
What Is Cat Scratch Disease?
Cats that spend time outdoors often attract fleas, ticks, mites, and other parasites. Fleas are more common than others to carry cat scratch disease, but ticks and others can also be a host. When an infected flea feeds on a cat’s blood, it transmits bacteria, leading to an infection.
The bacteria associated with CSD is Bartonella henselae, one of eight Bartonella bacteria that can infect humans.
How Do Humans Get Cat Scratch Disease?
Although fleas transmit infection by feeding on a cat’s blood, the bacteria live in saliva. Cats clean themselves often, licking fleas and flea matter that gets into their teeth and under their claws.
When a cat with CSD bites or scratches a human hard enough to break the skin, it can pass the infection to them. Also, if a cat licks an open wound on a person, it may transmit CSD.
Symptoms of CSD do not always show up right away. For some, it can take fourteen days.
What Are the Symptoms of Cat Scratch Disease?
Cats may not show any symptoms of CSD. The same is true for humans. However, when symptoms do appear, they may include the following:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Lesions on the skin
- Conjunctiva in the eye
- Poor appetite
- Red rash that looks like stretch marks
Symptoms can take up to two weeks, including a bump where you were bitten or scratched. Rare symptoms include backache, joint pain, rash, or abdominal pain.
How is Cat Scratch Disease Diagnosed?
Most cases of cat scratch fever are diagnosed by talking with your doctor about recent encounters with a possibly infected cat. When necessary, doctors can order an antibody test for confirmation. The test will search for the antibodies of the bacteria Bartonella henselae in your system. If the bacteria are active, the antibodies can be detected. However, you may receive a false negative test result if they are inactive.
Your doctor will likely perform a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to ensure you do or do not have CSD. PCR is a quick way to find the DNA and RNA of a pathogen, such as Bartonella henselae.
How is Cat Scratch Disease Treated?
Many cases of CSD will not need treatment. Their body’s immune system will flush the infection out and promote healing. Antibiotics may be given to those with weakened immune systems to ensure the infection goes away. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with autoimmune disorders, including:
- Lyme disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Inflammatory bowel
- Hashimoto thyroiditis
Work with a specialist in infectious diseases to ensure your symptoms are diagnosed and treated correctly.
Cat Scratch Disease and Co-Infections
Ticks, fleas, and other parasites can carry multiple bacteria at once. Therefore, they can transmit multiple bacteria at once when they bite you, causing more than one type of infection or co-infection. Each co-infection has its own set of symptoms and may require additional treatment.
CSD and Lyme disease
One of the most common co-infections is CSD and Lyme disease. Lyme disease symptoms include fever, chills, sweats, sore throat, facial paralysis, and swollen lymph nodes. If Lyme disease goes untreated, new and more debilitating symptoms may appear, such as cognitive dysfunction, sleep disturbances, mental health disorders, arthritis, severe fatigue, and inflammation around the heart or brain.
Other possible co-infections:
Babesiosis symptoms include fever, chills, sweats, nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, jaundice, and dark urine.
Flu-like symptoms, headaches, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal problems typically appear within two to three weeks of being bitten. If left untreated, ehrlichiosis can damage the brain and spinal cord and cause respiratory problems.
Numerous types of Bartonella may be found alongside the B. henselae bacteria. The most common are B. quintana, B. elizabethae, B. bacilliformis, B. clarridgeiae, B. grahamii, and B. Vinsonii berk.
Can Other Animals Spread CSD Bacteria?
The fleas and ticks found on cats can easily attach to other animals they encounter. If a cat and dog interact, the infected parasite may move from one to the other, bite their new host, and transmit bacteria into their bloodstream. You may contract a bacterial infection if you are bitten or scratched by either infected animal.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your pets from CSD.
Prevention Tips to Avoid Cat Scratch Disease
Cat scratch disease is found in kittens and younger cats, which are also the cats people engage with the most. If you aren’t able to avoid contact with cats, try using the tips below to reduce the spread of CSD:
- Keep the cat’s claws trim and clean.
- Avoid cats that try to scratch you, even if they seem to be playing.
- Wash your hands after playing with a cat.
- Never let a cat lick any part of your body, especially an open wound.
- Apply tick and flea medicine to your pet.
- Don’t let your cat go outdoors.
- Keep your lawn manicured and inhabitable for fleas and ticks.
- Avoid contact with feral cats.
- Adopt older, healthy cats.
Each time your cat goes outdoors, perform a flea and tick check when they return.
Where to Get Help
If you think you may have CSD or any other bacterial infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends contacting an infectious disease specialist.
To find an infectious diseases specialist, research organizations such as the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS). Start with the Board of Directors, some of the best doctors in the field. Dr. Omar Morales, for example, has spent much time researching and improving how CSD and other diseases are treated.