Q: When my daughter developed a fever and swollen lymph nodes, our pediatrician diagnosed her with cat scratch disease. Our kitten, Milo, seems healthy. Should he see a veterinarian for treatment?
A: Milo should see his veterinarian for vaccinations, neutering and parasite control–including flea treatment. Even if he is an indoor cat.
Fleas can carry Bartonella bacteria, which cause no difficulty for most cats but do produce cat scratch disease in humans. The bacteria are excreted in flea feces, also called flea dirt, tiny black specks you may find if you run a fine-toothed flea comb through Milo’s fur.
As Milo scratched himself, the infected flea dirt became embedded in his claws. When he scratched your daughter, he inoculated her with the Bartonella bacteria that caused her cat scratch disease.
Cat scratch disease doesn’t actually require a cat to scratch. The disease is transmitted when Bartonella-infected flea dirt gets into a cut on the skin or some other bodily opening, including the eyes. Signs of cat scratch disease in humans can include fever, lack of appetite, headache and lethargy, and at the site of the scratch can become tender and swollen.
Research shows that antibiotics administered to infected cats that appear normal won’t clear the bacteria or block transmission to humans. However, you can prevent cat scratch disease if you:
- Kill fleas and use a flea preventive throughout the year.
- Trim claws regularly. Avoid declawing, as research shows it does not reduce the risk of cat scratch disease in humans.
- Minimize scratches and bites by petting cats gently and playing with toys that keep you away from claws, such as a laser pointer or a fishing pole toy with a feather at the end of the string.
- Wash any cat scratch or bite thoroughly, and seek medical attention.
- Immunocompromised people should adopt only healthy adult cats that are free of fleas.
Editor’s Note: Keeping your pet flea-free during the winter doesn’t have to be a challenge if you follow these tips.
Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in Pennsylvania. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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