Humans contract Lyme disease from an infected deer tick. They pass the bacteria Bartonella henselae to a human’s bloodstream, where it reproduces and spreads throughout the body. Bartonella henselae is not the only bacteria deer ticks carry, however. Co-infections occur when a tick transmits more than one bacterium to your system. Common co-infections with the deer tick and Lyme disease include Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, and Relapsing Fever.
Another co-infection is Bartonellosis, transmitted by deer ticks, cats, fleas, and lice. This means you can contract the bacterial infection through a bite from a tick or other vector and a scratch from an infected animal, such as a cat, where the name “Cat Scratch Disease” originated. The cat is not the only animal capable of transmitting the infection to you through a scratch, however. Groundhogs, squirrels, and any other wildlife can be carriers.
What is Bartonella Henselae?
Bartonella bacteria are parasitic, and when they enter your bloodstream, they attack red blood cells and the lining of blood vessels. Once it gets into the red blood cells, the immune system protects it from being detected. Over twenty different types of Bartonella bacteria exist, fourteen of which can be transmitted from animal to human.
A common type is Bartonella henselae (B. henselae), which can be found worldwide. Reports say there are as many as 6.4 cases per every 100,000 people. The rate for children between five and nine is 9.5 for every 100,000. However, in warmer climates, the rates of contraction are much higher.
Like Lyme bacteria, B. henselae can severely impact a person with a compromised immune system. Symptoms may not appear for days or weeks.
Symptoms of This Co-Infection
It is possible not to have any symptoms of Bartonellosis. Some people notice a red bump on their skin, like a bug bite. It may or may not be itchy and usually doesn’t show up immediately. Most reports state the bump appears after one week or longer, making it difficult to associate it with the circumstances of being bitten.
One to two weeks after the bump, you will likely experience swelling of your lymph nodes, which can be in the neck, underarms, chest, abdomen, and groin. Other symptoms are so much like Lyme disease that your doctor may not think to check for a co-infection. Unfortunately, general practitioners often don’t think to even test for Lyme disease unless you bring it to their attention with a legitimate reason for concern (like you found a deer tick on your body or have a bullseye rash).
Symptoms of Lyme and B. henselae mimic those of other, more common ailments. For example:
- Feeling excessive tiredness
- Aches and swelling of joints
- Sleep disturbances
- Memory issues
- Heart problems
- Central nervous system inflammation
- Bone inflammation or osteomyelitis
- Skin rashes or lesions
- Pink eye or conjunctivitis
Diagnosing Bartonella Henselae
There is no universal test for diagnosing B. henselae. If your doctor tests for Lyme disease, they will use the protocol the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set. Unfortunately, their two-step protocol needs to be more accurate in more than 70% of the cases. The first step is to test with the ELISA. If it comes back positive, you will be given the Western Blot test to confirm the results of the first one.
There are several reasons the tests are inaccurate. One is that they only test for Lyme antibodies, which are excellent at hiding and protecting themselves from detection. You will receive a false negative result if they are inactive during testing or hiding behind biofilms.
However, if you test positive for Lyme disease, it should trigger your doctor to test further for co-infections. But without an actual test for co-infections like B. henselae, your doctor will not likely correctly diagnose you. To get the most accurate diagnosis, you must meet with a Lyme-literate doctor specializing in rare and infectious diseases.
Testing methods by a rare disease specialist include the following:
- Polymerase chain reaction
- Lymph node biopsy
- Culture analysis
- Symptom analysis
- Urinalysis antigen detection
- Cerebrospinal fluid tests
- Brain imaging for inflammation
- Nerve conduction studies
- Cognitive assessments
Working with a Lyme-literate doctor gives you a better chance of accurate diagnosis and, ultimately, a treatment plan that heals.
Antibiotics are typically the first line of defense against B. henselae. Not everyone will need antibiotics or any treatment at all. For healthy individuals, the infection will clear on its own. For others with autoimmune disorders, antibiotics may not be enough.
B. henselae can have forms that persist slowly over time. They are dormant versions that wait in the background until the immune system and antibiotics give up. Like Lyme bacteria, B. henselae creates a sugar-slime covering called biofilms that protect the bacteria from detection.
Bartonella can form fibrin nests that block blood vessels and limit blood flow, which prevents the immune system from reaching the bacteria. Enzymes may be necessary to break up the fibrin and restart blood flow.
Alternative treatments offered by Lyme-literate specialists may include:
- Methylene blue (with and without antibiotics)
- Essential oils like oregano and clove
- Japanese knotweed
- Anti-fungal protocols
- Biofilm eradication
The goals of Bartonella treatment include:
- Reducing inflammation.
- Boosting the immune system.
- Administering antibiotics.
- Implementing tactics to break down and eliminate biofilms.
Preventing Bartonella Henselae
You can take numerous prevention steps to avoid B. henselae, some of which apply to your interactions with cats. Avoid being scratched by a cat; if you are, wash and clean it immediately. Never let a cat lick an open wound on your body. Also, ensure your cat remains healthy and free of fleas and ticks that carry Bartonella.
Apply non-harmful repellents to your cat’s fur, stay up-to-date with veterinary checkups and shots, and check your cat each time they return outdoors. If you encounter a stray cat, avoid handling it until you know it is healthy. Always check with a specialist, like a Lyme-literate doctor, to verify any symptoms you may have.