Cat scratch fever: Not just a decent rock song

Q. Is there really such a thing as cat-scratch fever? – Jane T., Missoula, Mont.

A. Yes, there really is. Also called “cat-scratch disease,” it’s an infection that, while rare, can be passed from cat to human through direct transmission – through bites and scratches, and through flea bites.

The bacterium that causes cat-scratch fever is called Bartonella henselae. Most infected cats don’t show any symptoms – and most cats in the United States carry the bacteria. Adults with healthy immune systems rarely suffer from the illness if they’re exposed. But cat-scratch disease can affect children and immune-compromised individuals, and they should receive treatment as soon as possible.

If you or a friend or family member develop a fever, malaise, and headaches soon after being scratched or bitten by a cat, contact your doctor. The doctor can confirm whether the illness is cat-scratch fever or something else, and will prescribe the right medicine.

Cat-scratch fever, along with a few other diseases that can be transmitted between humans and cats – including ringworm and toxoplasmosis – underlines the importance of keeping pets healthy and free of fleas (which can transmit some illnesses from pets to humans) and keeping their bedding and litter areas as clean as possible.

If you or a pet are diagnosed with an illness, be sure to follow the doctor’s advice and take (or give to your pet) medication exactly as prescribed, for the entire course of treatment. This will ensure that the infection is taken care of and will minimize the chance of reinfection for both you and your pet.