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cat scratch fever: petplan pet insurance discusses cat scratch disease

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

Sorry, Ted Nugent fans – this blog is NOT dedicated to his 1977 hit song of the same name. Instead, we’ll be talking about the condition known as cat scratch fever (but feel free to play your old Nugent record while reading it)!

The disease is actually called cat scratch disease,  and it is caused by infection with the bacterium Bartonella henselae. The disease is harbored in cats but spread by fleas, so now you have one more reason to be vigilant about your cat’s flea and tick control.

The disease process goes like this: A cat (let’s call him Max) carries Bartonella henselae and is also unlucky enough to have a case of terrible fleas. Poor Max scratches a particularly itchy spot behind his ear and inadvertently picks up flea dirt under his toe nail. If you’re not familiar with flea dirt, it’s the tiny black flecks you find in the fur of pets with fleas. Those flecks are actually flea feces, and it’s made up of the host’s blood. In Max’s case, this flea dirt also carries the bacterium Bartonella henselae

Thankfully, his owner has just realized that Max is riddled with fleas and attempts to apply his topical flea prevention. During the process, Max scratches his owner, thereby transmitting the disease to him through the infected flea dirt.

Max might also become annoyed at another cat and scratch him, transmitting the disease to his feline friend and making him into a carrier. Let’s just hope his friend’s owner is keeping up with his flea medication!

For Max’s owner, who is a healthy person, cat scratch disease is an inconvenience, but not life-threatening. Generally, the scratch site will develop redness and then two to three weeks later, Max’s owner’s local lymph nodes will swell, and he will get a fever. Most of the time, these symptoms will resolve on their own. However, in people with compromised immune systems, cat scratch disease has more serious consequences.

Max’s infection with Bartonella henselae is still not completely understood. Cats who are infected with the disease generally don’t show any symptoms, but several illnesses seem to be correlated with infection. For instance, plasma cell stomatitis, an oral disease, has been linked to Bartonella infection, but questions remain as to whether this is because there is such a high incidence of infection or not. In warm climates where fleas are prevalent, up to 40 percent of cats may test positive for Bartonella, making it difficult to prove if there are associations between it and other concurrent diseases.

Testing for Bartonella further complicates the issue, as there is no one test that diagnoses positive cases 100 percent of the time.

As with so many other things, when it comes to disease in our pets, prevention is key. If your cat does not have fleas, he cannot transmit the disease, even if he has it. By keeping up-to-date on your cat’s flea prevention, you ultimately keep yourself safe, too. 

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Posted by Kim Smyth, DVM
on April 23 2012 10:21

Thank you for your comments, Dr. Hardy, and for allowing me to clarify the statements in the last two paragraphs of this blog. Many of the available methods of testing for the Bartonella organism tend to muddy the waters of the controversial issue of testing apparently healthy cats, as both false positives and false negatives can occur. Thank you also for pointing out that fleas do not have to be present for disease to be transmitted to humans, as Bartonella can also be transmitted through cat bites, presumably because the cat licked infected flea dirt off of its skin and thus the saliva contained the organism. To prevent the transmission of Bartonella to humans, owners should prevent cats from being infected by practicing year round flea control, keeping cats’ nails trimmed, avoiding scratches and bites, and discouraging rough play with cats. Thanks, Kim Smyth, DVM

Posted by Dr. William D. Hardy, Jr.
on April 20 2012 01:45

Your last 2 paragraphs are incorrect and give dangerous advise to pet owners. Tests for Bartonella are accurate and fleas do not have to be present on cats in order for transmission to people. Please see our website www.natvetlab.com. This is a dangerous zoonotic pathogen. Thank you- Dr. Hardy

Posted by Betsy Shortle
on April 04 2012 17:01

My dog, Ditto, lost the vision in one eye due to a bartonella infection that caused uveitis, culminating in secondary glaucoma. I highly recommend being vigilant about flea and tick control! Apparently this is extremely rare in dogs but spread by fleas and ticks. An expensive blood test and specific antibiotic treatment was required to eradicate the disease. Fortunately, Ditto was covered by PetPlan which made our choices on getting diagnostics and treatments so easy!

Posted by tarun
on March 13 2012 07:46

NICE plan. and very good information.

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