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Cat Scratch Disease

What Is Cat Scratch Disease?

Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection. People can get it if a cat or kitten scratches or bites them or licks an open wound.

Most cases in the U.S. happen during the fall and winter and usually affect kids, probably because they're more likely to play with cats and be bitten or scratched.

What Causes Cat Scratch Disease?

Bartonella henselae bacteria cause cat scratch disease. They live in infected cats' saliva (spit), but don't make the animals sick. In fact, kittens or cats may carry the bacteria for months. Fleas spread the bacteria between cats.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Cat Scratch Disease?

The first sign of a cat scratch infection is a blister or a small bump several days after the scratch or bite. It may look like a bug bite. This blister or bump is called an inoculation lesion. Most often, these are on the arms and hands, head, or scalp and usually don't hurt.

Within a couple of weeks of a scratch or bite, one or more lymph nodes close to the area of the lesion will swell and become tender. (Lymph nodes are round or oval-shaped organs of the immune system and are often called glands.) For example, if the lesion is on the arm, the lymph nodes in the elbow or armpit will swell.

These swollen lymph nodes appear most often in the underarm or neck areas. They range in size from about ½ inch to 2 inches in diameter and may be surrounded by a larger area of swelling under the skin. The skin over these swollen lymph nodes can become warm and red.

In most kids, swollen lymph nodes are the main symptom of the disease, and the illness often is mild. If other symptoms happen, they might include fever (usually less than 101°F or 38.3°C ), tiredness, loss of appetite, headache, rash, sore throat, and an overall ill feeling.

The swollen lymph nodes usually disappear within 2 to 4 months, but sometimes can last much longer.

Rarely, more serious complications can happen, usually in young kids or people with a weakened immune system.

How Is Cat Scratch Disease Diagnosed?

Doctors usually diagnose cat scratch disease based on an exam and asking whether the child was around a cat or kitten. During the exam, the doctor will look for signs of a cat scratch or bite and swollen lymph nodes.

In some cases, doctors order tests to help make the diagnosis, including:

  • blood tests and cultures to rule out other causes of swollen lymph nodes
  • a blood test that can check for for cat scratch disease

How Is Cat Scratch Disease Treated?

Most cases of cat scratch disease do not need any special treatment. Antibiotics are sometimes used to treat a severe case. If your doctor has prescribed antibiotics, give them to your child on schedule and for as many days as prescribed.

Kids with cat scratch disease don't need to be ketp apart from other family members. Bed rest is not necessary, but can help if a child tires easily. If your child feels like playing, encourage quiet play while being careful to avoid injuring swollen lymph nodes. To ease sore lymph nodes, you can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Is Cat Scratch Disease Contagious?

Cat scratch disease is not contagious from person to person. The bacteria spread by the scratch or bite of an infected animal, most often a kitten. They also can spread if the animal's saliva (spit) comes in contact with a person's eye or through broken skin. Sometimes multiple cases happen in the same family, usually through contact with the same infected animal.

Having one episode of cat scratch disease usually makes people immune for the rest of their lives.

Can Cat Scratch Disease Be Prevented?

If you're concerned about cat scratch disease, you do not need to get rid of the family pet. The illness is not common and usually is mild, and a few steps can help protect your kids from it:

  • Teach kids to avoid stray or unfamiliar cats.
  • When playing with a family pet or familiar cat, kids should avoid rough play to prevent being scratched or bitten.
  • Have kids wash their hands after handling or playing with a cat.
  • Keep your house and pets free of fleas.

If your child is scratched by a pet, wash the injured area well with soap and water.

If you think that someone caught cat scratch disease from your family pet, don't worry that your cat will have to be euthanized (put to sleep). Talk with your veterinarian about how to handle the problem.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor whenever your child has swollen or painful lymph nodes in any area of the body. And always call your doctor if your child is bitten by an animal, especially if:

  • The bite or scratch was from a cat and the wound does not seem to be healing.
  • An area of redness around the bite keeps getting bigger.
  • Your child has a fever that lasts for a few days after the scratch or bite.

If your child has already been diagnosed with cat scratch disease, call the doctor if your child has a high fever, lots of pain in a lymph node, seems very sick, or has new symptoms.