Animal Hospital
Quality Care
Dedicated staff
Conveniently located

Hours of Operation:

Monday: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Tuesday: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Wednesday: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursday: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Friday: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday: 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

Cat scratch fever: more than just a song

The song "Cat Scratch Fever" was made famous by Ted Nugent in 1977 but the disease was first diagnosed in the 1950s and is caused by a bacteria named Bartonella henselae, or B. henselae for short.

B. henselae is transmitted to humans primarily via scratches (as the name states) and less commonly via bites. While B. henselae affects humans with competent immune systems it is a real problem for people with compromised immune systems. Not only does the disease cause fever, lethargy and swelling of lymph nodes, but also a disease of the eyes called uveitis, an infection of the heart called endocarditis, and diseases of the nervous system.

The big question is how do cats become infected and how does the infection persist amongst cats? The answer to that does not lie in cats at all, but rather in fleas. We, as veterinarians, usually worry more about diseases carried by ticks than diseases carried by fleas. However, this is one of the few diseases carried by fleas that can cause significant disease in humans.

If a cat is infected with B. henselae it is present in the bloodstream. A flea bites the infected cat to take a blood meal (since fleas live on blood) and studies have shown that the bacteria lives inside the flea for up to 10 days.

Remember that cats are divided into two categories, 1) domesticated; these refer to cats that are used to human contact whether they be indoor cats, indoor and outdoor cats, or outdoor only cats, and 2) feral; these refer to cats with either limited or no human contact that live outside only, many times in colonies.

If cats are living together in colonies or cats that go outside are coming in contact with other either indoor and outdoor cats or feral cats they risk coming in contact with their fleas. This contact includes cats that are in screened-in porches or Florida rooms because many times fleas are small enough to pass through screens. If these fleas have B. henselae in their system then cats in screened-in porches risk exposure to the bacteria.

There is some controversy as to how a cat becomes infected. In some studies it appears as if the flea biting the cat passes the bacteria into the bloodstream. In other studies it is theorized that the cat actually eating the flea becomes infected with the disease. In a third study it has been shown that ingestion of the flea feces inoculates the cat with the disease.

No matter which theory is correct, the flea is definitely involved. This study used special cats that tested negative for all disease. The experts then took fleas that were infected with B. henselae and let them loose on these cats. None of the cats that were treated with the topical flea preventative tested positive for B. henselae and all of the cats that had no treatment became infected.

So, before we think that fleas cause our cats nothing more than an itch, think again. Make sure if your cat goes outside or has access to a screened porch or Florida room that they are on a approved veterinary preventive year-round. If your cat is inside only but you find fleas on him or her, treat immediately. It is in our best interest as well.

Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 13 years and is pictured with his son Matthew, as well as the newest member of the family, Jasmine, a Labrador retriever.

Matthew Kearns, DVM