What is Cat Scratch Fever? Symptoms and Treatment
Do you have cats and young children in your home? You might be at risk of cat scratch rever. Here’s how to recognize the signs, treat cat scratch fever in kids and adults, and avoid transmitting it in the future.
What is Cat Scratch Fever?
Cat scratch fever (cat scratch disease) is a disease caused by bacteria called bartonella henselae that is spread by the saliva of cats. A person can get infected if an infected cat scratches their skin deep enough to break the surface or licks an open wound.
Cat Scratch Fever Statistics
Cat scratch disease (CSD) is a relatively uncommon disease; each year, approximately 12,000 people are diagnosed with it in the US. Cases usually occur in the fall and winter seasons and are most commonly seen in children under 15 years of age.
Related: Choosing the Right Cat for You
What are the symptoms of cat scratch fever?
Symptoms start to show about three to 14 days after the scratch or bite. The first thing that you will notice is a small bump that looks like a bug bite or blister where the skin was broken. A couple of weeks after, the surrounding lymph nodes will start to swell and become sore.
The main symptom of cat scratch fever is swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes; the skin around the area may be red and warm. A common area is under the armpit. The size of the swollen lymph nodes can vary between half an inch to 2 inches in diameter
Other symptoms that someone with cat scratch disease may experience include the following:
- Achey muscles, joints or bones
- Low fever (usually lower than 101°F or 38.3°C )
- Lack of appetite and weight loss
- Extreme fatigue and exhaustion
- Sore throat
- Rash, bumps (papules) and/or cysts around the site of the scratch or bite
- Overwell unwell or under the weather feeling
How is cat scratch fever transmitted?
Cat scratch disease occurs when an infected cat bites, licks an open wound or scab or scratches the skin deeply enough to break the surface.
B. henselae lives in the saliva of cats; approximately 40% of cats are infected with this type of bacteria at some time in their lives. The most common transmission of this bacteria to cats occurs through fleas.
For instance, your cat is bitten by fleas or comes into contact with flea droppings. When cats scratch or bite fleas, the bacteria infect their teeth and their nails. Fighting with infected cats can also cause infection. Usually, infected cats do not have signs or symptoms.
Infection is more common with kittens that are less than 1 year of age. This is because they are learning how to defend and hunt prey and will scratch and bite to protect themselves while playing.
If your child has been diagnosed with cat scratch fever, they cannot spread it to another person. It is not contagious between humans. It is only spread from a bite or scratch of an infected animal. The disease can also be transmitted if the infected saliva contacts a person’s eye or an open wound or scab.
A single episode of cat scratch fever usually makes the person immune to it for life. That means, once they catch it once, they most likely won’t get it again.
Can you get cat scratch fever from an indoor cat?
Yes, it is possible to get cat scratch fever from an indoor cat. If the cat’s saliva is infected with bartonella henselae, it can transmit the disease.
Be sure to ask your veterinarian about testing and treatment for cat scratch disease. They will be able to provide more information.
How long does cat scratch fever last?
The main symptom of cat scratch fever is swollen lymph nodes which typically go away between 2 to 4 months; however, in some cases, it can take longer.
When should I be concerned about cat scratch fever?
For healthy people, cat scratch fever isn’t typically a serious illness and symptoms tend to go away on their own without intervention. There are rare cases that require intense treatment. About 500 hospitalizations occur every year resulting from complications of cat scratch disease.
Those who are at the most risk for serious complications that require intense treatment include young children between ages 5 and 14 and those who are immunocompromised.
However, it is important to contact your doctor or healthcare provider if an animal has bitten your child. This is especially crucial if you notice any of the following signs:
- The affected area where the original scratch or bite occurred is not healing, has not improved or has gotten worse and more tender
- The redness around the affected area is growing and expanding
- The fever has not gone away after a few days since the bite or scratch
- Your child has a high fever, new symptoms or appears very ill
How can I treat cat scratch fever?
For most people, cat scratch fever goes away on its own and does not require special treatment.
However, for severe cases including those with weakened immune systems, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and provide your child with medicine as per their advice.
Giving your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve symptoms. Applying a warm compress can also ease the pain from swollen lymph nodes.
How do I keep my family safe from cat scratch fever?
Cats are wonderful pets; the risk of cat scratch disease isn’t a reason to not own them. Generally, the symptoms are mild and do not require treatment. However, it’s important to practice precautions to minimize the risk and keep your family safe from cat scratch fever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), here are some do’s and don’ts in preventing cat scratch fever:
- DO wash cat bites and scratches immediately with soap and running water.
- DO wash your hands with soap and running water after playing with or handling your cat
- DO adopt cats older than one year of age if there are young children or people in your family who have a weakened immune system.
- DO check and control flea infestations in your home and pets by vacuuming and trimming your cat’s nails frequently
- Do give your pets their flea medication prescribed by their veterinarian
- DO schedule routine veterinarian check-ups for your pets
- DO ask your veterinarian about ways to keep your pets healthy
- DO keep your cat indoors to prevent fighting with feral cats that may be infected and reduce exposure to fleas
- DO NOT allow rough play with your cat or familiar pets which may cause them to scratch and bite.
- DO NOT let cats lick your open wounds.
- DO NOT pet or touch stray or unfamiliar cats.
American Veterinary Medical Association. (2018). U.S. pet ownership statistics. American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/us-pet-ownership-statistics
Cat Scratch Disease (for Parents) — Nemours KidsHealth. (2021, January). Kidshealth.org. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cat-scratch.html
Cat-Scratch Disease. (2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID). https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, July 25). Cat Scratch Fever: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23537-cat-scratch-fever
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Katharine is the author of three books, has been published in scientific journals, and has co-authored chapters in health research books.