All About Feline Bartonella

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Your cat may not look sick — but is she? Feline bartonella is a flea- and tick-borne illness that cats can pick up from grooming or staying at a shelter or boarder. Cats often show no symptoms in the early stages of the illness, so it's important to ask your veterinarian for a test. If your cat is strictly an indoor cat, her chances of developing bartonella or "cat scratch fever" (as it is often nicknamed) are low, but you should still be aware of the risks.

How Is Feline Bartonella Transmitted?

Is cat scratch fever real? Yes, but it's only a nickname for one variety of bartonella, a condition caused by a bacterium found in flea and tick feces. Up to 20 percent of cats with no risk factors still have the disease, according to the National Veterinary Laboratory. If you live in a hot, humid climate, your pet is more at risk. Cats contract bartonella primarily when flea feces are present on their fur or skin and they lick up the debris and bacteria while grooming.

The bacteria can also be transmitted through ticks. It's easy to bring these tiny bloodsuckers into your house if you live near a wooded area or have a dog that loves barging through bushes and tall grass. If humans or other animals unknowingly bring ticks in the house, even an indoor cat could be at risk for bartonella. Pet parents should be checking their pets for signs of fleas, flea bites, and ticks on a regular basis. Even with constant checks, you may not find tiny fleas, so also watch for excessive scratching or red marks. Since many cats that get this disease will show no symptoms for weeks or even months, it's important to ask your vet for a blood test to find out if your pet needs to be treated if you find fleas or ticks in your home.

If your cat has recently been boarded or outside the home, it may be a good idea to have your vet perform the blood test as a precaution, even if your cat seems perfectly healthy. Many vets recommend the blood test as part of adopting a stray or a new kitty from a shelter.

Close up photo of adult female deer tick crawling on piece of straw

What Are the Symptoms?

Cats can carry the bacteria in their systems for months without any symptoms, so if your pet starts to show signs of swollen glands, lethargy, or sore muscles, you definitely want to get her to the vet. Most cats are treated with a round of antibiotics, go back for a follow-up test a few months later, and exhibit no further problems. Fortunately, bartonella is not a deadly disease, but it is still one that pet parents should be aware of and know how to prevent.

Can People Get Cat Scratch Fever?

The name of feline bartonella may lead you to believe that only cats can get it, but the rest of the family is also vulnerable. Unfortunately, bartonella is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from cats to humans by scratching, biting or petting. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that immunocompromised people, such as young children or the elderly, avoid playing with young cats, because these humans are more likely to contract the disease. However, all cats can carry feline bartonella, so if someone who lives in your home has a sensitive immune system, they should be cautious around possibly infected cats. Dogs don't groom themselves like cats do and are at less of a risk, but they can still contract this illness from their furry sibling or pick up diseased ticks independently.

If anyone in your home is scratched or bitten by a cat, make sure they wash the area immediately and keep it clean. The name "cat scratch fever" or "cat scratch disease" can help you remember that the disease can be transferred from any broken skin. If a scratch turns red and swollen, seek medical attention.

This disease can still be transmitted without a bite or scratch. If you or someone in your house has any of these symptoms, they should talk to their physician and consider being tested for feline bartonella or any other strand of bartonella that may be common to your area:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Poor appetite
  • Tremors
  • Swollen glands or "stretch marks" on your skin

You don't have to have all these symptoms to consider being tested for a tick-borne illness. If your test does return a positive result, the good news is that this disease is not typically dangerous to humans, but it may require antibiotic treatment.

One other thing to remember is that if your cat has tested positive for feline bartonella (and doesn't bite or scratch you), it's important to wash your hands and be cautious about petting your cat until they are completely CSD-free!

Tabby cat enjoying being pet by an older man

How Do You Care for a Sick Cat?

If your cat tests positive for feline bartonella and has to go on antibiotics, you may find that administering medication and dealing with a cranky kitty can be a bit overwhelming. Here are some tips to help the treatment process go as smoothly as possible:

  • If your cat is taking antibiotics in pill form, follow each pill up with a treat. If your vet allows it, you can even crush it up in a pinch of wet food to make a tasty meatball.
  • Pick a time of the day that your cat is usually calm and quiet to administer the medication.
  • Allow your cat to have a room to herself, away from children and other pets, until she is feeling better.
  • Find time for extra one-on-one time with or near your cat. If she wants to be cuddled, you can pet her; just be sure to wash your hands afterward.
  • Be patient with your cat and realize her crankiness is only temporary.
  • When your cat finishes the round of medicine and regains some energy, reward her with more play and attention to strengthen your bond.

Feline bartonella may cause some trouble for you and your pet, but it is a disease that can be quickly identified with a blood test, and most treatments only take about two to three weeks. If someone asks you "Is cat scratch fever real?" you now know what to tell them now.


Chrissie Klinger

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