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Health & Wellness

Cat scratch fever: signs, symptoms and treatments

And how to protect yourself, too.

Sometimes, when cats are struggling with an infection — pet parents are at risk of catching it, too. Cat scratch fever, which is caused by fleas, is one of those illnesses. 

Cat scratch fever, formally known as cat scratch disease, is an infection that can spread from infected cats to other animals and humans, Dr. Aliya McCullough, Fetch’s on-staff veterinarian, says. Read on to learn more about cat scratch fever and how to protect yourself and your pets. 

What is cat scratch fever? 

According to Dr. McCullough, cat scratch fever is an infection caused by flea-carrying Bartonella bacteria.  

“Cats become infected with the bacteria that causes cat scratch fever when they have infected fleas and scratch themselves allowing flea dirt, flea feces or digested blood from the host to enter their broken skin,” Dr. McCullough says. 

Cat scratch fever can spread if a cat with infected flea dirt around their nails scratches a person or animal and the flea dirt enters their broken skin, Dr. McCullough explains. So, if a cat scratches you or your human family member, Dr. McCullough recommends thoroughly washing your wound and seeking medical attention. 

Symptoms of cat scratch fever

The symptoms of cat scratch fever vary between humans and cats — for cats, they can look like fever, eye swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, muscle pain and endocarditis, aka heart valve inflammation. In people, symptoms (which can appear more severe to some than others) can show as small red bumps, enlarged lymph nodes or fever.

“People with a compromised immune system, meaning the elderly, the very young, and those with a debilitating illness, may develop more severe symptoms like spleen enlargement, encephalitis — which is swelling of the brain or spinal cord — or a heart valve infection,” Dr. McCullough says. 

RELATED: Can cats get colds?

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Treatment options for cat scratch fever

Veterinarians often perform blood work, including special tests that detect the Bartonella bacteria and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. 

If your cat tests positive with the Bartonella bacteria but is healthy, your vet will most likely not recommend any treatment. “Symptomatic cats with cat scratch fever or positive cats with immunocompromised pet parents are typically treated with antibiotics,” Dr. McCullough says. 

Treatment for cat scratch fever typically lasts for a minimum of 3 weeks, she adds. 

How to prevent cat scratch fever

Dr. McCullough says that strict flea and tick control medications can prevent cat scratch fever. Talk to your veterinarian about the best option for your cat. 

Cat scratch fever can spread to both animals and people, so it’s a good idea to get your cat help if you think your pet is infected. Look out for the symptoms like eye swelling, fever and enlarged lymph nodes (among the other signs) and see a veterinarian as soon as possible if they appear. Not only are you able to help your pet, but these tips will arm you with the information to protect yourself and your other animals against cat scratch disease. 

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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