Cat scratch disease has been making headlines lately and spurring social media chatter on the safety of cats. The disease is caused by the Bartonella henselae bacteria causing symptoms in people ranging from fever to enlarged lymph nodes to a bump or raised area of skin at the site of a cat scratch. Symptoms may take one to three weeks to appear after the initial scratch.
“As is often the case, the widespread access to multiple forms of media leads to widespread dissemination of information. The problem is that often the information provided is unfiltered and can present a dramatic picture that is not always accurate,” Dr. Mark Dowell of Rocky Mountain Infectious Disease said. “Cat scratch disease is an ‘old’ disease and there has not been a dramatic increase in cases.”
Cats are commonly infected with Bartonella after being bitten by fleas, but it is also possible for the bacteria to be transferred through blood from cat-to-cat. Most infected cats will not become ill from the bacteria, and do not require treatment unless they are symptomatic. Kittens are more likely to be infected than adult cats, and most infected people are under the age of 15. The disease is not contagious.
The majority of cat scratches will not lead to cat scratch disease. Cat scratches should be cleaned with soap and water. Most cases of cat scratch disease won’t require treatment. The most common form of doctor-prescribed treatment is antibiotics for reducing swelling in lymph nodes.
Keeping pets and homes free of fleas is the best way to avoid the disease. Washing hands with soap and water after handling animals is a good habit. Avoiding stray cats limits exposure to the disease as well as avoiding rough play with cats.