Cat Scratch Fever in Cats and Humans: Part 1 of 3

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Author’s Cat Tuxie

Cat Scratch Disease

Before beginning, I need to make it clear that this article is NOT about Ted Nugent’s famous/infamous rock and roll classic that our parents in the late 1970s forbade us all from listening to. Regrettably, this is something much more serious. The original idea for this article on cat scratch disease began as a request from a client of my veterinary practice. Because of a large amount of research she had done on the internet, she was convinced that she and her dog were both infected by cat scratch fever. Thankfully, subsequent testing by her doctors proved that her concerns were not true, and dogs don’t catch cat scratch fever. But her panic from all of the misinformation that’s out there in cyberspace made me want to share what I know on the subject.

A second inspiration was some of the recent  information I’ve been seeing in my readings on the concept of co-infections of cat scratch fever with that of Lyme disease! In my business and personal life, I’ve met—or have heard about—maybe a hundred people who have been disabled or who have died from complications of Lyme disease. All of this misery in spite of the hard work and loving care by my human physicians counterparts. I can’t seem to get it out of my mind that one of the millions of possible reasons medical science just couldn’t seem to cure these lovely people is perhaps the notion of  the co-infection link was never considered.

My Sincerest Wishes

My hopes for this series of three articles is to increase the general awareness of cat scratch fever and to provide readers with a general resource to help people better battle health issues that can affect both themselves and their pets. Trying to explain this stuff won’t be easy; that’s because the subject isn’t easy. And to further complicate it, medical science, for all of its wondrous advances, can’t explain it all either.

The Disease Is Not What It Used To Be.

Cat scratch fever was one of thousands of diseases in animals and humans that I’d learned about in vet school. Back in those dark ages of the late 1980’s, the causative agent of sub-acute regional lymphadenitis (a medical term for cat scratch fever) had just been discovered! We basically learned back then, that with the exception of immune-compromised people (patients on chemotherapy or people who have AIDS), the disease was—and still is (somewhat)—a self-limiting.

That is, it’s a disease that usually goes away without treatment. In the years since then, however, after attending many medical conferences and doing some extensive research, things have changed. One of the more curious and potentially valuable information I found in my studies was its link to Lyme disease. Please see Part 2.

Cat Scratch Fever In Cats

Cat scratch fever is a disease that affects both cats and people and is caused by an infection with a bacteria called Bartonella henselae. Because I believe in the personal survival concept of “always knowing as much as possible about your enemy” I have created a separate blog page (Part 3) in which I discuss the bacteria at some length. This way people who are affected by this disease can actually see and understand more about just what it is that’s making them sick.

First, here’s some information on cat scratch fever disease in cats. This part of the story is pretty simple. Most of the time, cats don’t obviously suffer from the disease. A very observant owner may notice a decrease in their pet’s appetite or the cat may seem reluctant to move for a few days. A veterinarian exam may demonstrate a mild fever or enlarged lymph nodes . . . which are symptoms of about a million other different diseases. Estimates of affected cats range from 40 – 60%.

The most important thing to remember regarding how cats become infected with the disease is that the bacteria (Bartonella henselae) that causes cat scratch fever lives in the digestive tracts of fleas and is excreted on to the cat’s skin in the flea’s feces. Cats then become infected with the disease as they consume infected flea poop while they groom and scratch themselves. Another way they can catch the disease is through fighting with an infected cat. Although the medical literature is still completely undecided, there is a third possibility that ticks may be involved as well. More on this later.

Your Cat’s Main Enemy

Therefore, the best way to prevent your cat from getting infected with the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease, IS TO CONTROL THEIR FLEAS. Excellent flea control products are available everywhere. Be sure that the product you are using is labeled for cats! Check the pet regularly with a flea comb. [I will mention the possibility of the disease being spread by ticks later.]
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Enemy #1: The Cat Flea: Photo by http://www.petsandparasites.org/

 

Be sure she sees her veterinarian at least once a year to not just check for fleas, but to insure her good health overall. Be sure to trim his nails regularly. (With regards to being around immune-compromised individuals–and keeping in mind that it may be a bit controversial–declawing the cat may be warranted.) Other general commonsense recommendations are to wash cat bites and scratches with soap and running water, don’t allow cats to lick open wounds, and don’t pet or handle stray or feral cats.

There is a test for cats suspected of being infected with Bartonella henselae, but it is not very specific. Cats with symptoms of the disease usually cure themselves.

 

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An Excellent YouTube Video Showing Fleas

 

Summarized List of Tips to Help Avoid Cat Scratch Infection

-Trim your cat’s nails frequently. Consider declawing in extreme circumstances only.

-Apply veterinary approved flea control products to all cats and dogs in your home monthly.

-Control fleas in your home by frequent vacuuming and by preventing non-flea-controlled animals from contacting your flea-free pets. Severe cases of flea infestation may require a pest control expert.

-Insure your pet’s overall good health by seeing her veterinarian at least once a year.

-Do not allow contact with other stray animals.

-Consider adopting older cats especially if you have young children or people living in your household with weakened immune systems.

-Always try to wash your hands after playing with your pet. Never allow cats to lick an open wound.

-Avoid situations where a cat may be tempted to bite or scratch such as playing rough or by handling feral animals.

In Part 2, I discuss the disease in humans and co-infection with Lyme disease.

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