Nothing is without its risks, including cat ownership, and there's more than one way that owning a cat can make you sick. Although the disease is fairly rare, these signs of cat-scratch fever are worth considering if you've been playing with cats and you've been feeling under the weather. Like its better-known cousin toxoplasmosis, cat-scratch fever (obviously) is transmittable from cats to humans. But unlike often-unnoticed toxoplasmosis, cat-scratch fever causes symptoms that range from unpleasant to deadly.
Cat-scratch fever, also known simply as "cat-scratch disease" (CDS), is a bacterial infection that cats catch from each other via infected fleas. Thus, although it's unnecessary to avoid cats entirely, the best way to prevent cat-scratch fever is to treat the cats in your care with flea preventative so the infection's vector is blocked. If you've been scratched by a cat (flea-treated or not), be sure to wash the area with soap and water as quickly as you can to reduce the chances of CDS setting in.
What happens if you do catch CDS? In humans, the bacteria (Bartonella henselae) can infect various parts of the body, to varying effect, and it's not always pretty (while cats who have cat-scratch fever themselves usually only experience mild symptoms, if they ever have any at all, and do not typically require treatment). A slightly alarming new report from the Centers for Disease Control shows that, although the number of CDS patients is low compared to other illnesses such as the flu, that cat-scratch fever can be quite dangerous — especially to children. If you've been exposed to scratch cats, these symptoms are worth knowing, and they're a varied bunch.
1. Scab at the scratch site
A scab or pustule at the site of the cat scratch is likely to be your first sign that it's not healing as usual. Within about 3 to 14 days of the scratch, those infected with CDS might notice that it's swollen, red, and otherwise getting worse instead of just fading to normal skin like you'd expect a superficial wound to do.
2. Enlarged lymph nodes
As the CDS infiltrates a victim's immune system, she is also likely to notice enlarged, swollen lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are located in your neck, armpit, groin, or collarbone and tend to flare up in relation to where the infection is spatially within the body. Swollen nodes are a non-specific symptom, indicating immune activity of some kind, but it could be CDS.
As the name "cat-scratch fever" implies, CDS often features an elevated temperature in patients. Though of course there are many, many other reasons you have a fever, a cat could be to blame.
4. Flu-like symptoms
In addition to a fever, CDS sufferers might get a range of flu-like symptoms, such as headache, muscle ache, and fatigue. Though you may be tempted to write these off as the flu, it's important to see a doctor to confirm your suspicious if you've been scratched by a cat. Cat-scratch disease can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and that's definitely not a condition you want to ignore.
5. Blurred vision
More serious cases of cat-scratch disease can include neuroretinitis, an inflammation of parts of your eye that can result in vision problems. Though you wouldn't necessarily connect the dots between vision issues and your cat, do mention this to your eye doctor so they can consider all possible diagnoses.
6. Bone pain
CDS can occasionally manifest itself as osteomyelitis, an infection of the bones, which causes literal bone pain. If you have swelling, warmth, or pain in your bones, see a doctor right away and be sure to mention the cat scratch.
7. Infected heart
On the very rarest and most unlikely side of the CDS symptom spectrum, there's a very small chance that CDS could spread to your heart. A heart infection, endocarditis, itself has many varying symptoms and you should certainly leave this diagnosis to the pros. But, again, be sure to mention that cat scratch so you can receive the right diagnosis and treatment, whether your symptoms are mild or major.
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