Cat-Scratch Disease is More Serious Than Previously Thought

People love to hold and pet cats, but the reality is that cats definitely don’t always love to be be held and petted. Anyone who has ever tried to do just that with a seemingly cute and cuddly cat knows what it’s like to get a very clear “don’t touch me” message in the form of a bite or a scratch.

Now the CDC is warning the public of the potentially very dangerous consequences of being bitten, scratched or even licked by our furry feline friends. Cat-scratch disease, also known as “cat-scratch fever” has been around for decades, but a new report brings updated awareness to just how prevalent the disease is and how seriously ill it can make people. In fact, the health complications can be worse than doctors originally thought.

What Is Cat-Scratch Disease, Exactly?

Cat-scratch disease is a bacterial infection that can be passed between cats by fleas that bite them or that spread their droppings to cats’ open wounds. If a cat infected with the Bartonella henselae bacterium happens to bite or scratch a person in such a way that it breaks the surface of the skin, or the cat happens to lick a person’s open wound, the disease can spread to that person.

Symptoms of cat-scratch disease usually start showing up around 14 days after the bite, scratch or lick. The affected area may look infected, showing signs of redness and swelling with raised, pussy lesions that may feel warm and/or painful. Other symptoms like fever, headache, decrease in appetite and exhaustion may also occur. Lymph nodes that are closest to the site of the scratch, bite or licked wound may become enlarged and feel swollen, tender or painful.

Most infected cats show absolutely no signs of illness, but sometimes can suffer from inflammation of the heart and other areas, which may be identified by a veterinarian. Infected people who don’t receive treatment can suffer from more serious health complications that affect the heart, brain, eyes other internal organs. The disease is typically diagnosed by blood test and then treated with antibiotics.

New Cat-Scratch Disease Statistics

The CDC report involved examining over 13,000 cat-scratch disease cases over a period of eight years. Around 35 percent of cats in the U.S. are infected with the Bartonella henselae bacterium, although most cats don’t end up passing the disease to people. Kittens less than a year old are more likely to spread the disease because they tend to bite and scratch more while playing or learning to hunt.

About 12,000 cases of cat-scratch disease are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, with about 500 of those cases requiring hospitalization. Only a very small number of cases result in death, only becoming a serious risk when a person doesn’t seek diagnosis and treatment.

The number of cases were highest in children ages 5 to 9 followed by women ages 60 to 64. Cases were more prevalent among those who live in southern states, likely because these are warmer regions where fleas can flourish more.

Preventative Tips from the CDC

Cat-scratch disease is very rare, although not quite as rare as originally thought, with the report showing 4.5 cases per 100,000 population. Luckily for cat owners and cat enthusiasts, refraining entirely from petting or cuddling cats isn’t necessary to prevent the spread of the disease.

The CDC recommends taking action to control fleas (even for indoor cats), avoiding aggressive playfulness with cats, never encouraging biting or scratching, and washing your hands immediately after touching a cat. Since children are at a higher risk, parents should teach their kids proper ways to interact with family or friends’ cats so they can avoid scratches and bites. If you or someone you know receives a bite or scratch from a cat, wash the area with soap and water and of course seek medical help if symptoms of cat-scratch disease appear later.

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

My mom had this one time years ago and was hospitalized for it.

Justyna L.
Justyna L2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Joanne p.
Joanne p2 years ago


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Renata B.
Renata B2 years ago

In my life I have lived for 33 years with cats when I was a child, I looked after a colony of semi-feral cats. I have tow now. I had seven for all their lives. Can you guess? I had some scratches in my life. My first cat, a stray, was very aggressive when playing, she liked tough games. I have never had anything bad. If sometimes the scratch is deeper I disinfect it, but that's it. It's very rare and they are accident of course, not intentional. When they play some go a bit mad. And now they don't have chemicals on them: they stay indoors and in the catio. As a child of course they were semi-feral so no chemicals either and maybe fleas. Mine had fleas twice and I removed them with patience, mostly combing them and dispose of the insects. Beware of the chemicals: they are made to kill after all and they kill - quicker or slower - more than it's written on the box.

Jane R.
Jane R2 years ago

I wouldn't worry about it at all.

Beth M.
Beth M2 years ago

Thank you for the great info!

Jen S.
Jen S2 years ago

I have never had cat scratch fever though I have had cats my entire life. I keep mine on flea control year round, which may account for my luck and I now know more about the issue. Thanks for posting.