Many cat owners may have heard of a condition called Cat Scratch Fever, but you might not know much about what it actually is! In this blog, we are going to look at this illness, what causes it and whether or not you should be worried.

What causes it?

Cat scratch fever is a condition caused by a species of bacteria called Bartonella of which there are many different varieties. The most common culprit is one called Bartonella henselae. This bacterium is found in the blood of infected animals and is spread by parasites like fleas, ticks and lice. These parasites feed on the blood of these animals and then transmit these bacteria onto their next host spreading the disease.

The bacteria can be found in parasite faeces too. This means if an animal or human has an open wound and some flea dirt gets into it, the Bartonella bacteria can be spread. This is most likely to occur if you were scratched by an infected cat that was also carrying parasites. Not only could parasite faeces accidentally get into a wound through general contact with your cat and their surroundings, but also via faeces that are under your cat’s nails or in their mouth from grooming themselves.

Which cats are a risk?

Kittens are more likely to spread this illness than older cats because they tend to exhibit more rough play behaviours such as scratching and biting.

Most cats will not show symptoms of this disease. It is thought that about 40% of cats will carry B. henselae at some point in their lives. In very rare cases cats may develop a mild fever which lasts 48-72 hours. This may be with or without other symptoms such as vomiting, lethargy, swollen lymph nodes and/or decreased appetite. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to advise you further, but it is not a common cause of illness in cats.

So why are we worried about it?

In people, this bacterial infection starts to cause symptoms about 3-14 days after this skin is broken. Children are the most affected, probably because they are more likely to get scratched by cats in the first place. The following symptoms could be seen –

  • Swelling and infection of the wound (may appear as a raised red bump with pus in it)
  • Swelling of nearby lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiredness

In some rare cases, serious complications could be seen, affecting the brain, eyes and other internal organs. This is more likely to occur in people that have lowered immune systems. Such as people on chemotherapy or those that live with HIV or AIDs.

However, these symptoms may also occur due to many other infections. You should always contact your doctor for advice if you think you or a family member may have acquired cat scratch fever, or any other infection from a pet, in case treatment is needed.

How can you reduce the risk of cat scratch fever?

Importantly, there are steps that you can take to reduce your risk, these include;

  • Taking care when playing with your cat or kitten – don’t encourage rough play or biting
  • Supervising young children when they play with pets
  • If you get scratched wash your wound straight away with soap and running water
  • Don’t allow your cat to lick your open wound
  • Make sure your pet has regular veterinary-approved parasite treatments to reduce the risk of fleas and ticks. Over the counter products may not be as effective as prescription strength ones.
  • Wash your hands after handling your cat, especially if you have a compromised immune system

So, should I be worried?

Cat scratch fever is definitely something to be aware of, especially if you have young cats/kittens in your household alongside family members with compromised immune systems. Keeping your cat’s parasite treatment up to date will help reduce the risk greatly. It is usually flea or tick dirt getting into open wounds that cause transference of infection. If you are injured by a cat, make sure you wash the area thoroughly and seek medical attention if things aren’t looking right. In most cases, cat scratch fever isn’t serious, but very occasionally it can be so always ask your doctor for advice.

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