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Cat Scratch Fever – What it is, How You Get It and How You Prevent It

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Cat scratch fever can be a very serious condition, causing scarring and even blindness. In this post we'll discuss how your cat can carry the disease (and may not show symptoms), how you can catch it, symptoms of catch scratch disease, complications, treatment and why you don't want to let kitty lick you.

Cat Scratch Fever - What it is, How You Get It and How You Prevent It

Since my cats didn't come with an owner's manual, I didn't realize that cat scratch fever was anything other than a 70's song – until I found out that my sister-in-law had a case of it that was so bad it required surgery. At first I thought she had gotten scratched by the cat. (After all, it's called cat “scratch” fever, right?) It turns out that there was no scratch involved – all she did was let the cat lick her face and neck. She ended up with a bad infection in her neck that led to complications and an operation with a noticeable scar. (She is now fine.)

In another recent case, Janese Walters from Toledo, Ohio went blind in her left eye from being licked by her cat. CBS News quotes:

“I woke up one day and I couldn't see out of my left eye,” said Walters. “I looked in the mirror and I thought I had pink eye or something.”

After a month of inconclusive tests, doctors traced back the source of the infection to Walters' cat and a common bacteria known as Bartonella henselae, which causes a condition called “cat scratch” disease.

We've always had barn cats and indoor/outdoor cats who are allowed and encouraged to hunt, plus we all know that kitties lick their backsides, so I've never been big on letting kitties lick me. Recently we added a new cat to our home who loves to lick, so I thought I'd do a little more research on exactly what the risk is. My conclusion – it's probably best not to let kitty lick you, but if you do get licked, wash the area thoroughly. Be extra careful around your eyes, and scratches, bites, or other open wounds.

How could my cat get cat scratch fever?

Cat scratch fever (also known as catscratch fever or cat-scratch disease) is caused by a bacterium called Bartonella henselae.

The Center for Disease Control states:

About 40% of cats carry B. henselae at some time in their lives, although most cats with this infection show NO signs of illness. Kittens younger than 1 year are more likely to have B. henselae infection and to spread the germ to people. Kittens are also more likely to scratch and bite while they play and learn how to attack prey.

Cats can get infected with B. henselae from flea bites and flea dirt (droppings) getting into their wounds. By scratching and biting at the fleas, cats pick up the infected flea dirt under their nails and between their teeth. Cats can also become infected by fighting with other cats that are infected.

Generally speaking, if your cat goes outside, it will have a higher chance of carrying the disease. (There are some natural flea and tick prevention options on the market.) That said, just because it's an indoor cat doesn't automatically mean it's safe. It's possible that the disease may be contracted by humans directly from flea bites, but the CDC says this has not yet been proven.

How do I catch cat scratch fever?

The bacteria is transferred through saliva, which enters the body through open wounds – preexisting or caused by cat bites or scratches. Cat scratch fever can also be transmitted if the saliva touches the whites of your eyes. For instance, if kitty is licking your face or hand and you rub or touch your eye. An open pimple would also be another possible entry point. Bacteria are tiny and opportunistic.

If you've already been bitten or scratched, or have been licked near a wound or scab, wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water. Cats generally don't get sick from the bacteria, so it's tough to tell if your cat is a carrier.

What are the symptoms of cat scratch fever?

Healthline groups symptoms of cat scratch fever into more and less common options.

Common symptoms of cat scratch fever include:

  • a bump or blister at the bite or scratch site
  • swollen lymph nodes near the bite or scratch site
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • a low-grade fever

Less common symptoms of cat scratch fever include:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • sore throat

In rare cases, there can also be complications such as encephalopathy (may cause brain damage or death), neuroretinitis (inflammation of the optic nerve causing blurred vision), osteomyelitis (bacterial infection in the bones, possibly leading to amputation) and Parinaud’s Syndrome (looks like pinkeye, may require surgery to remove infection).

Cat Scratch Fever Treatment

Most of the time, the infection will heal on its own. If an infection is severe, antibiotics or treatments of secondary conditions may be needed. Just pay attention to any broken skin contact with kitty, and watch out for licking, bites and scratches. Please see a trained medical professional if symptoms are severe or persistent.

How to Keep Your Cat from Licking

Most of the time, kitty can be be distracted. Redirect your cat to another activity or relocate hands or face away from kitty's mouth. Eventually kitty will likely stick to mostly grooming him or herself. If you need additional tips, try the book, “Cat Training is Easy“, or stream some episodes of “My Cat from Hell” to gain some insight on managing difficult cats.

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Cat Scratch Fever - What it is, How You Get It and How You Prevent It

Originally posted in 2016, updated in 2017.

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21 Comments

  1. You may want to tell pregnant women not to handle cats liter boxes. No one told my daughter this when she was with child. My grandson was born with many illness. He is 20 now sitting in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. By the grace of God he is still a live. This does not effect the mother while she is pregnant it goes straight to the unborn fetus. You can check this out If you want to. Doctors should warn mothers of this, it would save a lot of heartaches.

      1. Thank you so much for your info on this. I was just looking up on if I could use coconut oil for ear mites and came across ” not letting your cat lick your face because of risk of cat scratch fever. ” I had been laying down with my cat and she is under a yr old and she was licking my face earlier today and was telling her that I love her to. Thinking oh she is being so sweet. And she was but now I know even though she is being sweet that I have to be careful of her licking me. TY, and by no means am I getting rid of my baby because of this. I found her at 3 weeks old in the swamp area across the street with her brother and there mother moved them and forgot where she put the 2 of them. My friend had a momma cat that fed them for a bit and I found the brother a very good home. And she has become my baby. I call her BooBoo’s that is her Nik name.

    1. The reason Doctors tell pregnant women not to handle cat feces is the risk of contracting Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that some cats can contract. The issue is that within a cat’s lifetime, the contagious form is shed in the feces for only 1-3 weeks, and only becomes contagious to humans if the feces has sat in the litterbox over a 24 hour period. As long as the litter is scooped daily, the risk is minimal.

    2. It’s called Toxoplasmsis, you can get it from cat grooming or eating meat that isn’t cooked well enough. It caused me to suffer 2 miscarriages, I had low grade fever and swollen lymph nodes in my neck. I was on treatment for it for my 2 children.

  2. I’m hoping people dont read this and dump off their cats. I’ve had cats my entire life and have never hears of anyone getting sick from them. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but there is common sense that people just lack and blame the pet…and toss it out. I work with an animal rescue in Milwaukee and I see how pets are so disposable. Some drs tell their patients to get rid of their pets if they get pregnant. Ignorance is not being a responsible adult. People get mad when we tell them not to declaw but then surrender the cat cuz it bites. Just sad that people have no value in pets.

    1. Since I put this up, I’ve heard from two readers who contracted cat scratch fever, so although it’s rare, it does happen. I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone ditching their pets because of risk, but on the flip side it would be a shame if someone got sick simply because they didn’t know the risk. With proper precautions, risk is minimal. I know our new fur buddy is settling into his new home here just fine, and his licking is confined to hands, which get washed after handling. No big deal.

      1. Yes educating one’s self is the key for so many things in life along with facts. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog especially since we are in the same part of the country 🙂 It gives me some ideas and goals to look forward to when I finally get out of the city and find a nice few acres with a little house.

    2. I totally agree with you Lidya. I love cats, well I love dogs too, ehm, actually I love anything that has fur (have you seen the Ili Pika on the net?) My point is that if you educate yourself on the risks then you can be prepared for or minimize them. My cat, whom I found in a local market abandoned, bit me once. He had a fight with another cat and when I grabbed him hi did it. Long story short, thank God I´m still fine. That was 2 years ago. Of course I forgave him (Did I say I love him!) But no one should take innecessary risks while living with pets

  3. wow this helped me alot i never had a cat but my daughter who wants to rescue every animal that is out there found a kitten. So, currently we have one but, of cause my relatives are not happy with us having a cat. One of my sisters has 2 younger kids one of then got sick all of sudden, currenlty he is at the hosital and all the symptom that you have discussed about he has. Now i feel terrible the doctor did mention about “cat scratch” and possible lick or just maybe a rub agains, or brush up from the kitty. Omg this is serious my daughter needs to be aware of this plus this kitty has licked and scratched her face is there some test i can do before she gets ill or to prevent her from the this.

    1. To the best of my knowledge, there is no home test for cat scratch fever. I’d suggest thoroughly washing the exposed area, and avoiding licks and scratches in the future if possible. If exposure does happen, wash well. If the doctor doesn’t know that the child who is sick had cat contact, you should confirm that the child had cat contact.

  4. Cats should be kept indoors, first of all. Better for them, the environment, and minimises risk of communicable disease. Very sad to hear your relative disposed of her pet. Ours are like family. Because they’re kept indoors, I’ve never had a problem with disease in the entire 24 years I’ve been a cat owner. (Licking included).

  5. I had cat scratch fever when I was 5 yrs old, (am 53 now) that required surgery. My right lymph node in my neck was removed. I can never catch the disease again. Thus said, I have had cats my entire life, around my children and now grandchildren. The thing is to be aware and cautious just as you would with anything else in life.
    I live on a small farm with cats, dogs, chickens and guinea pigs lol. All of these are said to be able to spread something or another to humans. Just some caution and awareness and all should be alright.
    Just think of what you can catch just going shopping? 😀

  6. My husband had cat scratch fever because he used to let the kitty scratch his hands. He eventually went to the doctor, he was so sick and slept a lot be he was put on antibiotics. He got well but he did get the disease.

  7. I have eight cats and all of them like to knead me. Some of them also want to lick. I try to discourage them, but I’m not comfortable with scolding an animal for showing affection. What I do is redirect their attention and then rub 91% Isopropyl Alcohol all over the area that received the ‘attention’. and my hands My doctor told me it was a smart way to deal with it, so I’m sharing it with you guys. 🙂 By the way, I’ve never caught anything untoward from any of them handling it like this.

      1. Well, the alcohol goes on me to kill the germs left behind and sterilize the tiny knead scratches, but it dries quickly. I tried licking my finger once after it dried and I couldn’t even taste it. The vet said it wouldn’t hurt them even if they licked a little while it was wet for those few seconds if takes to dry.

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