For example, if you thought that this was a problem limited to cats and cat owners, think again: It has been linked to cows, dogs, rodents and humans. Also, if you live in an area where biting flies, fleas, lice and potentially ticks are a problem (certainly applies to my neighborhood) then we are at risk for exposure and possible infection from this organism. The good news is that it may be easier than you think to reduce you and your pet's risks for contracting this disease.
Cat Scratch Disease Bartonella is a bacterial organism that infects approximately 20 percent of the healthy cats living in the United States and probably even more than 20 percent of the unhealthy cats we share this world with. When a flea bites an infected cat, it ingests blood as well as the Bartonella bacteria. When the flea defecates, these bacterial organisms are in the flea feces. When a cat scratches or grooms itself, the flea feces containing the bacteria get lodged around the claw or in the mouth of the cat. If this cat then scratches a person or another cat with this dirty claw, or bites someone with its contaminated mouth, the bacteria can be transmitted.
Depending on the strength of the immune system of the recipient of the cat scratch or bite, the individual may have no symptoms or may develop flu-like symptoms such as fever and muscle aches, enlarged and tender lymph nodes near the scratch, and a pustule or reddening within the scratch about a week or so later. In humans with a weakened immune system, much more serious conditions, such as heart valve infection, arthritis and encephalitis can result. More than 22,000 human cases are reported annually, 10 percent of these requiring hospitalization.
Kittens are more likely than older cats to transmit the bacteria because of their playful nature and their interaction with people, especially children. Interestingly, boys develop cat scratch disease more often than girls, probably because boys play rougher with kittens than girls and thus, are more likely to be scratched or bitten. Others that are susceptible include those who handle cats a lot, such as veterinarians and their staff, humane society employees, and animal control officers.
While 20 percent of the nationwide cat population is infected with this bacterium, cats living in the southern United States actually have a much higher infection rate. Thanks to higher heat and humidity, fleas thrive in warmer climates. As a consequence, cats in southern Mississippi, for example, have nearly a 50 percent chance of being infected. In our feline friends, the bacteria can cause a long list of problems, including, oral, respiratory, ocular, intestinal diseases, and skin infections.
No information is available about the incidence of these bacteria in dogs.
Diagnosing bartonellosis in pets isn't simple: there is no single test that can prove that your pet does or doesn't have the disease. Consequently, your pet's doctor may use a combination of data, such as a blood test and the response to therapy, as a means of determining if a pet has this disease. Treatment for this disease is a three week-long course of the antibiotic Azithromycin; there is an 83 percent success rate for curing infected cats.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommendation for decreasing the likelihood of pets becoming infected with Bartonella includes maintaining an appropriate flea-control program year-round. With newer and even more effective topical and oral monthly flea control products available, achieving and maintaining a flea-free home is affordable and attainable. Also, keeping cats indoors to minimize hunting and exposure to fleas and trimming cats claws regularly can help reduce the possible transmission of this bacterium. Our cats and dogs provide us with so much love and companionship; say "thank you" to them by keeping fleas out of their lives. It may add quality years to their - and possibly your - life.
Dr. Dennis Selig is a veterinarian at Northwood Hills Animal Hospital in Gulfport, Miss.