Adopting stray kittens that hang around the neighborhood is tempting. They’re often alone, hungry, and in need of a good home.
But there may be danger beneath that cute feline fur. Fevers from cat scratches (aka cat scratch fever) are a real possibility when handling cats and kittens that haven’t been seen by a vet. Those symptoms can worsen into what’s known as bartonellosis, a serious, debilitating disease for humans.
If you’re unfamiliar with bartonellosis, here’s what you need to know.
What Is Bartonellosis?
There are three different kinds of bacteria that can cause the disease Bartonellosis in people. The most common is a bacterium called Bartonella henselae that can be carried by infected fleas or ticks, which can then infect cats or dogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that this type of bacteria is documented in 30-40% of domestic and adopted shelter cats.
Luckily for cats, most of the time they don’t get any long‑lasting health problems. They might have mild symptoms of a fever for less than 3 days, which may not be noticed by pet parents. More serious infections are rare and can make a cat quite sick. Symptoms pet parents may notice include vomiting, lumps (enlarged lymph nodes), decreased activity, or not eating as much as normal. Cats may have no symptoms when infected, and symptoms can show up when the cat is stressed due to surgery, trauma, or infection with another disease. Since these symptoms can be due to other causes, make an appointment with your cat’s veterinarian for a sick visit.
Infected dogs can have a wide range of health problems that are worse than those experienced by cats. Pet parents might notice vomiting, runny nose, or lower-than-normal activity levels. Since these symptoms can be due to other causes, make an appointment with your dog’s veterinarian for a sick visit.
The most common cause of Bartonellosis in people is cat scratch disease (CSD). As its name suggests, people can get CSD from the scratches of infected domestic or feral stray cats or kittens. Other ways kittens or cats can spread the disease to people is by licking an open wound or by biting a person so that it breaks the skin. Symptoms in people include:
Enlarged, tender lymph nodes that develop 1–3 weeks after exposure
A papule or pustule (looks a lot like acne) at the site of the scratch, bite, or open wound
Eye infections, severe muscle pain, or encephalitis (swelling of the brain), though rare
Trench fever and carrion’s disease are infections that are caused by other kinds of Bartonella bacteria, which are not associated with cats or dogs.
If you have symptoms that worry you, contact your physician. Let them know if you came into contact with a kitten or cat, if you were bitten or scratched by a kitten or cat, and if you think that kitten or cat was infested with fleas or ticks.
Who’s at Risk?
If you or your household has young children or those with compromised immune systems, they may be more susceptible to unknowingly getting an infection from a pet or stray. To help you remember who is most at risk, use the acronym YOPIES, which stands for:
Younger than 6
Older than 60
Exposed to animals that do not see a veterinarian
Be sure to talk with your veterinarian about your pet’s lifestyle (indoor vs. outdoor) and the lifestyle you share with your pet (for example, does your pet sleep in your bed?). This information will help them give the best possible care and advice to keep everyone healthy and safe.
Bartonellosis Prevention & Protection
Prevention is always the best treatment when it comes to pets and people. It’s not necessary to test pets for bacteria unless you suspect that you or someone else in the household has been exposed, and it’s safer and more practical to let the pet naturally handle the infection. Pet parents should take the following precautions, especially with kittens younger than a year old:
Any YOPIES should avoid rough play with cats and kittens to prevent scratches or bites. If you are scratched or bitten, wash the area immediately with soap and water.
Ask your veterinarian to check your kittens or cats for fleas or ticks. If they have a flea or tick, ask your veterinarian to tell you the best treatment for those parasites. Let them know if you also have a puppy or dog at home. They might have fleas or ticks, which means that they need to be treated too. Veterinarians are trained to know what’s toxic for the fleas and ticks but not toxic for your pets.
If you do choose to treat your cats for fleaswithout consulting a veterinarian, try fipronil or other spot‑on treatments. Never use products that contain permethrin for your cat. If you have questions, check with your veterinarian.
Use a flea collar on dogs that may share a household with cats. Do not use one that contains permethrin.
To protect your pets and yourself from unwanted disease and bacteria, follow the “3UP” rule:
Vet Up: Take your pet to a veterinarian at least once a year to make sure they are current on vaccinations and are parasite‑free. Ask about how you can keep your home and areas where your pets may be outdoors free of parasites like fleas and ticks.
Pick Up: Clean up your pet's waste and dispose of it properly. Daily is best!
Wash Up: Make sure to wash your hands frequently, especially after handling pet waste, before preparing or eating food, and after being outdoors.
It’s also a good rule of thumb not to let your animal lick your face (nose, mouth, etc.) or wounds. Their mouth is only as clean as the last place they recently licked.