Cat Scratch Fever

Cat Scratch Fever

Cat scratch is a rare disease. It is a zoonosis (it can be transmitted from cats to people) but thankfully, in most cases, the effects are mild.

Although for a time this illness was described as Japanese cat scratch fever, it occurs worldwide. Children seem to be especially at risk. It is important to supervise play sessions, so that injuries of this type are less likely to arise. As a precautionary measure, remember to immediately wash and disinfect thoroughly any injuries that occur.

Cat Scratch FeverCat scratch fever can be spread from cat to cat, and cat to human, through scratches, but this is not the only method of transmission. A cat may scratch during play, as well as when showing aggression.

Scratches in areas where the skin is relatively thin are particularly prone to infection by the bacterium which causes cat scratch fever.

Cat scratch fever, also known as benign lymphoreticulosis —causes inflammation of the lymph nodes. The initial sign of infection is likely to be a slight swelling around the site of the scratch which looks rather like an insect bite. This subsides but about two weeks later, the nearby lymph nodes will become swollen and the person may have a raised temperature for a short time.


Unfortunately, these particular symptoms are far from diagnostic and can be linked with other diseases, such as lymphoma, which are quite unrelated to cats. Unfortunately there is no easy test for cat scratch fever, and a range of tests may be needed to eliminate other possibilities first. In fact, the precise cause of this illness was unknown for many years. It was not until 1988 that a bacterium was isolated in patients suffering from the disease. Further study has now revealed that Bartonella henselae is likely to be the main cause, although other bacteria may also be involved in some cases.

Nor is it clear as to how the infection may spread from cat tocat. It is thought that fleas may be involved. Initially, cats also suffer a mild fever, but recover and will then have the bacterium present in their blood for months. Even so, it does not appear to spread easily, particularly to people.

A US study has suggested that, on average, only five people out of 200,000 fall ill each year as a result of cat scratch fever in the USA.

Not all those who develop this disease will have been bitten or scratched, or have even had contact with cats, so there are clearly other ways of acquiring this infection.

In many instances, only one member of the household falls ill with this disease.

The Bartonella bacterium, identified as the primary cause of the infection, is closely related to that responsible for deadly outbreaks of trench foot disease during World War I.

Q. Would declawing help to prevent cat scratch fever?

This surgery, known as onchectomy, is not carried out by veterinary surgeons in the UK because it seriously restricts the cat’s natural actions. But it would be of no help in any case, because the infection can occur even without an obvious scratch.

Q. Are any groups of people more vulnerable to complications from cat scratch fever than others?

In most cases, the infection resolves without treatment, but there can be problems in people whose immunity is compromised, as a result of chemotherapy for cancer or those suffering from AIDS. Antibiotics are not routinely prescribed, as it resolves itself, but if necessary, doxycycline or erythromycin can be used to combat the infection.