Cat-Scratch Fever is Real, but Not Really Prevalent

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published reports of a scientific study on Sept. 20, 2016 regarding research conducted in the United States from 2005 through 2013 about cat-scratch disease. Although there were some unexpected findings, there was nothing of crisis proportions.

Headlines from some media suggested cat owners panic over the chance of becoming infected with a deadly disease from their felines, but the CDC report lacked any indication that panic of any type is warranted. Indeed, the incidence rate of cat-scratch disease is yet considered to be rare. Instead, the scientific study pointed out what it is important for everyone to know about cat-scratch disease, because although it’s true that it can be spread to humans from infected cats, those cats get the causative infection, Bartonella henselae, from flea bites or through contact with flea excrement.

The cat – and in rare occasions, the dog – can spread the infection to humans through a cat bite or scratch or contact with cat saliva to mucus membranes such as those of the nose, eyes or mouth.

A person need not own cats to incur cat flea bites of their own. Fleas live in yards, bushes, etc. and are sometimes brought indoors on pant legs or other clothing. People living in areas of the south and mid-Atlantic states, where humidity is prevalent for much of the year, incurred more incidents of cat-scratch disease than did people who live in the more arid regions of the country.

Indoor adult cats who have no fleas are the least likely of all cats to acquire — and therefore less likely to spread — cat-scratch fever than kittens or stray outdoor cats. Prevention is as simple as flea prevention for your cat(s) and washing with soap and running water any cat bites or scratches. Also wash your hands after playing with your cat. People with weakened immune systems should not adopt cats under one year of age since kittens are more likely not only to have the Bartonella hensalae infection, but also more prone to engage in behavior to spread the infection such as biting and scratching, even playfully.

The CDC report revealed that cat-scratch disease, also called cat-scratch fever, affects more people in the United States each year than public health experts were aware, with up to 12,500 people contracting the bacterial infection annually, representing an average annual incidence of cat-scratch disease to be 4.5 outpatient cases/100,000 people and 0.19 inpatient cases/100,000 people.

There have been a small number of people who have developed lethal infections from cat-scratch disease, infections that affect the heart or brain, and are considered by the medical community to atypical complications. Most people who develop cat-scratch fever will note one or more of these symptoms:

  • A reddened bump or pustule develops at the site of injury
  • Tiredness, fatigue
  • Headache
  • Fever (for some, not all)
  • Overall aches, general malaise
  • Swollen lymph node near site of injury

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