Cat scratch fever is a mildly infectious disease, but generally a non-threatening infection caused by the Bartonella bacteria which can be contracted following a cat scratch or bite. Kittens with fleas are most likely to carry the bacteria in their blood and saliva, but it does not actually make the kitten sick. It generally affects children and is most likely to be contracted in autumn or winter. Symptoms can develop from about one to two weeks following an injury.
The first sign of cat scratch disease is usually a small, raised lump filled with pus at the site of the scratch. This is rarely painful and may be mistaken for an insect bite. Then, within a couple of weeks, the lymph nodes (glands) nearest to the wound site will begin to swell and feel tender (a wound in the arm will cause the glands in the elbow or armpit to react, while a wound in the face will cause those in the neck to swell).
For most people, this will be the extent of the illness, but around a third of those infected will go on to develop other symptoms including:
- slight fever
- loss of appetite
- sore throat
- abdominal pain
- minor convulsions
- redness of the eye
- general malaise
Cat scratch fever is not contagious between people. The bacteria must be spread by a bite, scratch, or by an infected cat licking an open wound or sore on a human or the naked human eye. Once the infection has faded, the sufferer generally remains immune to further similar infections.
Most cases are benign, and the infection resolves itself without the need for medical attention, although there may be some remaining tenderness in lymph nodes for some time afterwards. However, cat scratch fever can cause complications for people with very weak immune systems, and medical attention should be sought for people in this higher risk category if symptoms are noted. You should also seek medical attention if the wound does not seem to be healing, a red rash spreads out from the wound site, or a fever develops which does not dissipate within a couple of days.
The best way to avoid cat scratch infection in the first place is to ensure that kittens and cats are not suffering from fleas and to always wash your hands after playing with your cat or kitten. If you are scratched, wash the area thoroughly with hot water and soap. If you suffer from any illness which reduces the strength of your immune system you should take further precautions, such as avoiding petting stray cats and avoiding playing with your own cat in a manner which is more likely to result in a scratch.