Ever tried to import the family cat from your home country? Difficulty level 9. Well, one of the difficulties relates to “La Maladie des griffes du chat” known in English as Cat Scratch Disease.
Now most people know that dogs and bats carry diseases, including the deadly rabies, but the other domestic pet, the cat, carries its fair share as well. However, almost every household has at least one cat, and often more and cats get the run of the house. Cats are affectionate, warm pets that will sit on your lap for hours, purring away, while it licks your hands. During that time, it may even be giving you more than love. It may be giving you a little present called Bartonella henselae, AKA Cat Scratch Disease! Yes, your cat is a walking, purring receptacle of illness.
Tell me more, you say, while wondering if you should strangle the cat now or later! But first a little history. A little over 50 years ago, the clinical signs of Cat Scratch Disease were described, and despite 50 years in between, it is still in the feline population.
Cat Scratch Disease affects between 2-10 people per 100,000 head of population in America, so whilst it isn’t an everyday diagnosis, most doctors will come across a few cases in their medical lifetime.
The presenting symptom is a regional swelling of the lymph nodes, generally in a young person or a child, and the usual scenario involves a panicking parent who is sure the child has lymphatic cancer.
What actually happens is that the cat is carrying the organism known as Bartonella henselae, which is found all over the world, and which it inoculates into the human system. This bug in turn is trapped by the lymph glands, within which one almighty fight takes place, with the end result being that the glands swell dramatically and can even burst through the skin as a suppurating discharge. Other signs and symptoms include a fever, sore throat and headache.
Now there are many causes for swollen glands, fever, headache and sore throat, so how do we pick on the family pussy cat? Quite simply, there will be a history of having been bitten or scratched by the family moggy, and the inoculation site will drain into the affected lymph glands.
So just how does the cat give you a “shot” of bugs? Well, firstly somewhere between 20-40 percent of cats are carrying the organism, and it lives in the cat’s saliva as well as in its blood. While licking its claws, pussy cat leaves a collection of the organism there, which in turn becomes yours when the cat scratches you. Deliberately or accidentally.
Cat Scratch Disease, although generally localized can even end up infecting internal organs such as the liver, spleen heart and brain, though this is very rare. For most people who contract the illness they quietly recover, though it can sometimes take some months. However, for people with compromised immune systems, spontaneous recovery is not the norm. Children get the disease more than adults, because children tend to spend more time with pets, and pull more than the occasional tail.
There is treatment, with one of the most appropriate antibiotics being Doxycycline, while the most usually available penicillins are fairly ineffective. There are tests which can be done in the laboratory to prove or disprove infection by Bartonella henselae, so what we call a “Definitive” diagnosis can be made. Again you can see the dangers in self medication. If you do indeed have Cat Scratch Disease from the cat bite, the penicillin you bought is useless!
So should we all go out and take our cats down to the vet and consign them to the great veterinary hospital in the sky? The simple answer is no, but the moral to this tale is that we should be on our guard. Cat scratches and bites should not be taken lightly. Immediately after any injuries you should wash the wounds with soap and water and after a thorough cleansing only then apply your favorite antiseptic, and at the first sign of problem, pop into my hospital and get it checked. But just leave the cat at home!