Cat Scratch Fever

A bacterium called Rochalimaea henselae has now been identified as the causative organism for a condition in man known as cat-scratch disease. Contact with kittens more than cats is the major source of transmission for this disease, however, flea and tick bites can also transmit the disease. This same organism can result in several other conditions in man such as, bacillary angiomatosis, bacillary peliosis, and relapsing bacteremia.

This organism belongs to a small family or bacterium called Rickettsiaceae. The organism can be cultivated and thus diagnosed but incubation may take up to five weeks to grow. None of the species of this organism in this genus are known to cause clinical disease in the cat or dog.

The biggest threat in man appears to be in the immunocompromised individuals for which the organism can be fatal. This is what has prompted a recent news article to appear, however, please remember this is the worst case scenario and that this same bacterium usually results in far less tragic symptoms as well as can come from other vectors than the cat. When cat-scratch disease does occur it is most likely to be seen in people less than 20 years old and is more common in the fall months of the year. In more than 90% of the cases reported the disease is a benign, self limiting, regional lymph node enlargement that follows when the skin is broken by the causative agent. The most common symptoms include a low-grade fever, lethargy, generalized aching and occasional headache, loss of appetite, and enlargement of the spleen. Fatalities attributed to this disease are almost nonexistent.

While a recent article showed that as much as 25% of the cats tested in San Francisco were positive for the bacterium that causes cat-scratch disease it did not say what the duration of the infective period in cats is. In addition, the exact mode of transmission from cats to man is not well documented. Hopefully any negative publicity about the perceived hazards of cat ownership will be outweighed by the benefits of comfort or companionship. Declawing cats is not the answer to prevent the spread of the disease as any already broken skin is all that is needed for the bacterium to enter. Probably the most effective means of prevention, should that be necessary, is to wash any broken skin after contact with a cat and to avoid rough play with kittens.

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