Is Cat Scratch Fever Real?

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A cat uses it paw to scratch.

By Dr. Tracy McFarland, a veterinarian and writer for Pets Best Pet Health Insurance, a cat insurance agency.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and I can’t help but remember rock musician Ted Nugent screaming about Cat Scratch Fever, but it’s actually a real disease. It is classified as a zoonotic disease, because it can be transmitted from animals (in this case, cats) to people.

Cat Scratch Fever is not commonly seen in healthy adult humans, and is more commonly seen in children and adults with poorly functioning immune systems. In people, this disease can cause intermittent fevers, swollen lymph nodes, abcesses, and more rarely eye, joint or neurological complications. The organism responsible is a bacteria, called Bartonella.

Historically, a scratch or bite from a cat was felt to be the main mode of transmission, but recent research shows that flea dirt (digested blood passed through the body of the flea) may be the most important way the organism is transmitted between cats or from cats to people.  Thus, the best way to prevent Cat scratch Fever is good flea control, especially for cats spending time outdoors.

One longtime Bartonella researcher estimates that 20% of healthy American cats carry these organisms, although since his research is based on antibody testing, it is in dispute, since the presence of antibodies in a cat’s blood doesn’t prove current infection. While most cats who are currently infected show no signs, some will have severely reddened gums, eye problems, chronic upper respiratory infections, heart disease, or bone infection.

There is treatment available for cats suspected of being infected with the disease.  Currently, veterinarians reach for doxycycline for 28 days, with improvement expected, starting about day 7. If doxycycline treatment doesn’t work, veterinarians reach for an antibiotic from the class known as fluoroquinolones, which are reserved for serious, resistant infections. As always, the best treatment is prevention, starting with consistent, effective flea control and yearly preventative annual examinations for your cat.

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