The Real Cat Scratch Fever


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Cat scratch fever. It’s an uncommon disease that can be passed from felines to humans. Should you be worried?

You might know “Cat Scratch Fever” as a popular Ted Nugent song from 1977, but the phrase is not just a musical metaphor. It’s a real disease that affects about 24,000 people each year in the US, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Health.

That’s a relatively low number, so is it reasonable to worry about cat scratch fever if you share your life with kitties? According to Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist, there is minor cause for concern – but mainly only among people who have immune system problems.

“Cat scratch disease usually resolves on its own in a person with a healthy immune system,” says Dr. Jaliman. “The people who need to be treated are usually immuno-compromised.” Even for them, she adds, treatment is simple and involves a course of antibiotics.

What is it and how does it manifest?

Dr. Jaliman states that cat scratch disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae. You can get it when a cat carrying the bacteria scratches you and breaks the skin. In addition to the usual wound, a red bump will appear and your lymph nodes may swell. While this sounds unpleasant, it usually won’t send you to the doctor, and most otherwise healthy people don’t even realize they have something out of the ordinary.

In very severe cases, Dr. Jaliman says you might experience symptoms like fever, loss of appetite, a sore throat, headaches, and an overall feeling of malaise. But this usually only happens if your immune system is weak, and you’ll only need treatment in the rare event that you even suffer these effects.

The bacteria comes from fleas

How do cats become carriers? Felines infected with the bacteria responsible for cat scratch disease get it from fleas, according to Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a holistic veterinarian and author of Dinner PAWsible. She adds that a study involving infected and uninfected cats living together showed that the bacteria was not transmitted between the felines unless fleas were present.

It’s said that younger cats have a higher risk of being infected, but according to Dr. Alinovi, this risk has less to do with their age than their circumstances. She states that a heightened risk is more often found among stray cats because they’re more likely to have fleas; and among younger felines at shelters because they’re more likely to be born to strays with weak immune systems living in unhygienic conditions. Older cats that have been given good natural flea control for most of their lives don’t share this same risk.

Preventive precautions

If you suffer from a compromised immune system, or are just overly cautious, taking some simple precautions is better than losing out on kitty companionship.

• Dr. Alinovi recommends adopting an older, laid-back cat and being diligent about natural fl ea control. “Find out before you adopt if the cat likes to play aggressively,” she says. “That would make him less desirable than a kitty with a super mellow personality. Some cats will turn around and scratch whoever is petting them after a few minutes of being stroked. These cats seem to get over-stimulated, so they’re not ideal candidates for an immune-compromised person.”

• One precaution Dr. Alinovi says you should defi nitely not take is declawing the cat. It’s a painful procedure and won’t stop the cat from being a carrier of cat scratch fever.

• Strengthening both your own immune system and that of your cat is another helpful preventive measure. “Give your cat great food,” says Dr. Alinovi. “A strong immune system makes him less likely to have flea problems and harbor nasty bacteria.”

• If you do get scratched, Dr. Alinovi recommends washing the wound immediately and spraying it with colloidal silver. Oral immune-supporting supplements can also be used.

Cat scratch fever might sound intimidating, and it makes for great song lyrics, but the reality is much less dramatic. With such a low risk factor, and symptoms so subtle you might not even know it if you ever get it, this uncommon disease is no reason to shun cat companionship.

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