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Ask the Doctor January 2020 Issue

Dear Doctor: Cat Scratch Fever

famveldman | Bigstock

About 40 percent of cats become infected with the bacteria that cause cat scratch fever.

Q. My cat scratched me on my arm, and a few days later I developed a bump there. But then I went on to develop a fever and also felt very tired. I went to the doctor, who said I had cat scratch fever and that it would resolve on its own. Does that sound right?

Ronald Ostler

Jackson Heights, New York

Dear Mr. Ostler,

A. Cat scratch fever, caused by the scratch or the bite of a cat infected with bacteria called Bartonella henselae, does usually go away without any treatment, although in some cases antibiotics are needed. In fewer cases still, severe complications can develop that require hospitalization, usually in people with compromised immune systems because of diseases like cancer or AIDS. But the disease as a whole is rare, affecting only about 12,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is most prevalent in the South.

Cats — usually kittens — become carriers of the harmful bacteria when bitten by infected fleas; about 40 percent of cats become infected at some point in their lives, even though the cats themselves don’t get sick.

The way to avoid cat scratch fever — which can also take hold if an infected cat’s saliva gets into an open wound or the surface of your eyes — is not to engage in rough play with your pet (you want to avoid having the cat break your skin) and to stop engaging in play or petting before the cat feels hassled by your attention. Of course, that doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, and the following signs should prompt a visit to the physician: fever, swollen or painful lymph nodes, a wound that isn’t healing after a few days, and redness around the wound that is getting worse.

Comments (6)

I ALWAYS immediately wash out all scratches or nips by my cats with hot soapy water then put hydrogen peroxide on it and alcohol before putting on an antibacterial ointment. For me, this has always stopped the itching and irritation of scratches or small bites. This may not work for everyone but it sure has worked for me. After doing this I've never had a problem and to me it just makes good sense.

Posted by: Buddypop | January 6, 2020 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I have 2 cats .they are not biters but they are very vocal.....they like to "talk " a lot.I have one that goes around my house and "demands me to scratch her back.......forever!!!! other than that I feed a couple of strays But I don"t let them in the house because they "spray"....I haven"t heard of anybody getting cat scratch fever...I have heard about it only....it"s good to learn about it ...thanks for sharing the information.

Posted by: laughingblueeyes | January 6, 2020 1:13 PM    Report this comment

Bartonella henselae is a bacteria, treated with an antibiotic. Acyclovir is an antiviral. Am not a doctor but while the bacteria can be chronic, I don't know that it would cause "flare ups" over years. You might request a Herpes titer.

Posted by: Tiffany Calero | January 6, 2020 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Bartonella henselae is a bacteria, treated with an antibiotic. Acyclovir is an antiviral. Am not a doctor but while the bacteria can be chronic, I don't know that it would cause "flare ups" over years. You might request a Herpes titer.

Posted by: Tiffany Calero | January 6, 2020 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Bartonella henselae is a bacteria, treated with an antibiotic. Acyclovir is an antiviral. Am not a doctor but while the bacteria can be chronic, I don't know that it would cause "flare ups" over years. You might request a Herpes titer.

Posted by: Tiffany Calero | January 6, 2020 12:52 PM    Report this comment

I had cat scratch fever in 1982. Apparently, I was scratched on my leg by our cat. The infection travels to the lymph glands. In my case, it was my groin area. I ran a fever and my lymph glands became swollen. The symptoms are similar to type 2 Herpes. Not good for a marriage that was already rocky.
My doctor performed a biopsy of the lymph gland tissue. The results were not herpes, as my wife was convinced it was. It was cat scratch fever. My doctor treated it with acyclovir, the same treatment for herpes. The flare ups continued for several years, each time declining in severity. It eventually went away for good.
I kept the cat until she passed, 17 years later. The wife, no.

Posted by: bottsje | January 6, 2020 9:17 AM    Report this comment

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