Cat Scratch Disease: What Is It and How Do You Treat It?

Written by Sammi Caramela
Published: December 3, 2023
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Whether you’re adopting, rescuing, or simply bonding with a precious cat, you might not consider any potential health risks. While cats can sometimes be unpredictable, playful, and even aggressive, they typically don’t mean any harm. However, many cats will bite, scratch, or even nurse your open wounds by licking them, exposing you to potentially dangerous pathogens. While this might seem harmless, if the cat is infected with a particular type of bacteria, these innocent acts can lead to cat scratch disease (CSD).

Also called cat scratch fever, CSD is a rare infection of the lymph nodes caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms of CSD are typically mild and resolve on their own, but it’s important to understand the risks, signs, and treatments associated with CSD. 

Keep reading to learn all about cat scratch disease — and how you and your furry loved one can stay safe. 

What Is Cat Scratch Disease?

Cat scratch disease is a rare bacterial infection caused by cat scratches, bites, or licks. While many cats are infected with the bacteria that causes this disease (B. henselae), the actual condition itself is not common in humans. However, you might develop this disease if an infected cat scratches or bites you deep enough to break your skin or licks an open wound on your skin. This is because the bacteria B. henselae is carried in the cat’s saliva. Thankfully, this disease cannot spread from person to person.

cat biting

While cat scratches, licks, and bites might be innocent and part of “play,” they can lead to infections like cat scratch fever.

©Oleg Troino/Shutterstock.com

When CSD does manifest in a human, the person typically experiences mild flu-like symptoms that eventually go away on their own. Symptoms start to appear about three to 14 days after exposure. Usually, you will notice the scratch or bite lesion starts to become infected, looking swollen, red, raised, or even pus-filled. From there, you might begin to experience fatigue, a slight fever, body aches, a poor appetite, and swollen lymph nodes. (More on symptoms below).

How Do Cats Get Infected?

Most commonly, cats become infected with the bacteria that causes CSD through flea bites. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, there are some rarer causes of feline B. henselae infections, such as altercations with other infected cats or blood transfusions. While many people assume the infection is rare, the bacteria is actually found in 1 in 3 healthy cats. The infection is most common in kittens under the age of one year. Unfortunately, kittens are also more likely to bite and scratch, contributing to the spread of the bacteria. 

Symptoms of Cat Scratch Disease

Most cats don’t experience noticeable symptoms of a B. henselae infection (although some can have complications with the heart, mouth, urinary system, or eyes. When a human is exposed to the bacteria by an infected cat, they, too, might not develop any noticeable signs of infection. 

In some cases, however, CSD can cause the following (typically minor) symptoms.

Swollen and Irritated Lesions

Often, if you develop CSD after your cat scratches you, bites you, or licks your open wound, you will develop swollen or irritated lesions. This is most common in the location where you were exposed to the bacteria. For example, if your cat scratched your hand, you might notice a red and infected lesion in that area. 

Sometimes, it takes a few weeks to develop cat scratch fever after being exposed. If that’s the case, the welts from the bite or scratch might become more irritated as time goes on. Additionally, you might even see some pus oozing out of your lesions, which is a sign of infection.

Body Aches

Body aches and pains, such as the kind you experience when you have a fever, are common with CSD. You might also feel run down as if you have a mild case of the flu. Thankfully, these aches typically subside on their own and aren’t so severe that they require treatment. In most cases, simply resting and taking over-the-counter medications and pain relievers will do the trick. In fact, many healthy individuals don’t even realize that they have CSD.

Headache

Another common symptom of CSD is a headache. This could be dull or more severe, depending on your immune system. As mentioned earlier, most cases of CSD will go away on their own — and with it, so will your headache. 

portrait of tired sick exhausted woman, beautiful girl is suffering from hot Summer heat stroke, sunshine, hot weather day, sweaty and thirsty, high temperature. Feeling unwell, unhealthy

Headaches and body aches are common symptoms of various diseases, including cat scratch fever.

©EugeneEdge/Shutterstock.com

If you develop an excruciating migraine, however, see your doctor right away to ensure it is not causing an infection in your brain. While this is extremely rare, it’s best to cover all your bases and receive the proper treatment. 

Fever

Some people who develop CSD will run a fever. That’s why another name for CSD is cat scratch fever. Fevers are usually low-grade, similar to that of the common cold. However, if you run an elevated temperature that won’t go down with nonprescription medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or if your fever is higher than 103°F, seek medical attention right away. 

Poor Appetite

Just as you likely experience when infected with other illnesses, you might notice a poor appetite with CSD. When our bodies are fighting illnesses, they don’t always have the strength to use food as fuel. As a result, we don’t feel as hungry. 

However, it’s important to continue to fill your body with nutrients, take the necessary vitamins and supplements, and drink lots of water. Eating a healthy diet when sick can help your body heal itself more quickly. Try foods such as soups, bananas, citrus fruits, toast, and anything easy on your stomach.

Exhaustion

If you come down with CSD, you might feel especially tired. This is because your body is trying to fight the bacteria that caused the illness. Allow yourself to relax and get plenty of sleep so you can recover. Most likely, symptoms will clear up or improve on their own. However, keep in mind that symptoms can last for up to four months. If you’re feeling debilitatingly exhausted for more than a few weeks, consider visiting your doctor for medication to potentially speed up the process. 

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Later on in your infection, you might notice swollen lymph nodes near the site of the scratch, bite, or lick. Your lymph nodes might also be sore and tender, similar to when you have an upper respiratory infection. Again, this will likely subside within 2 to 4 months. Be sure to monitor your symptoms to ensure they aren’t progressing too far, in which case, you should see your doctor immediately.

Cat Scratch Disease Treatments

As many say, “prevention is better than cure.” One of the best preventative measures you can take to avoid developing cat scratch fever is to immediately wash any cat scratches or bites with soap and warm water.

Most symptoms of CSD are minor and don’t require treatment. However, in rare cases, some people with weakened immune systems might experience complications affecting their eyes, brain, heart, and other organs. In fact, the disease can even be deadly, though this is quite uncommon.

If an infection doesn’t clear up on its own, the patient might need antibiotics. The most common antibiotic treatment for CSD is azithromycin, but some other commonly used antibiotics include clarithromycin, rifampin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and ciprofloxacin.

Other treatments for less severe cases of CSD include painkillers, anti-inflammatories, fever reducers, warm compresses, and plenty of rest. Mild instances of the disease usually clear within two to four months while more serious ones can take up to a year.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Diana Taliun/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Sammi is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering cats, nature, symbolism, and spirituality. Sammi is a published author and has been writing professionally for six+ years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Writing Arts and double minors in Journalism and Psychology. A proud New Jersey resident, Sammi loves reading, traveling, and doing yoga with her little black cat, Poe.

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