Cat scratch fever (cat scratch disease) is an uncommon bacterial infection you can get from a cat scratch or bite. Fleas infect cats with the bacteria that cause cat scratch disease (B. henselae). Symptoms include rash or bumps on your skin, swollen lymph nodes and fever. Cat scratch disease usually goes away on its own in a few weeks or months.
Cat scratch fever (usually called cat scratch disease or CSD) is an illness caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae (B. henselae). It causes swollen lymph nodes, bumps on your skin (papules) and a fever. B. henselae can infect you if a cat bites or scratches you or licks an open wound you have.
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Cat scratch disease is relatively uncommon, with only about 12,000 people diagnosed every year in the U.S.
Cat scratch disease rarely causes serious illness and usually goes away on its own. Complications from cat scratch disease hospitalize about 500 people each year in the U.S.
Anyone who’s around cats is at risk for cat scratch disease, but it’s most common in children under 15. If you have HIV or a weakened immune system, you’re at higher risk for serious complications of cat scratch disease.
Cat scratch disease has two telltale signs: swollen lymph nodes and bumps or cysts under your skin (papules). The bumps can look like a rash or more like nodules, and they’re usually near your wound.
Symptoms of cat scratch disease start three to 10 days after a cat scratch or wound and include:
Infection with B. henselae bacteria causes cat scratch disease. If a cat scratches or bites you or licks an open wound, you can get infected with B. henselae.
Fleas spread B. henselae, the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease, to cats. Cats (especially kittens) can have a blood infection from the bacteria without symptoms for months. Cats can then spread it to humans when their saliva comes in contact with an open wound (like a scratch or bite).
It’s possible that getting bitten directly by a flea could give you cat scratch disease, but this hasn’t been proven.
To diagnose cat scratch disease, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam where they’ll:
Sometimes cat scratch disease is diagnosed with this exam alone. Your provider may also
Since cat scratch disease usually goes away on its own, treatment is usually to help your symptoms in the meantime. Your healthcare provider might prescribe the antibiotic azithromycin to try to get rid of the bacteria. This is usually only if you have a compromised immune system or your symptoms haven’t gone away within a couple of months.
You can manage the symptoms of cat scratch disease at home by:
If you have a very large or painful lymph node, you can ask your healthcare provider about having it drained to get relief.
If you’re around cats, there are a few simple things you can do to help prevent cat scratch disease:
Cat scratch disease is usually self-limiting — that means that it goes away on its own without causing complications or long-term effects. In a small number of people, cat scratch disease spreads to other organs, causing more serious illness.
The main symptom of cat scratch disease, swollen lymph nodes, lasts anywhere from two to eight weeks. It usually resolves on its own.
Cat scratch fever can become more serious if it spreads to other organs. Some complications include:
If a cat’s scratched or bitten you, be sure to clean the wound and keep an eye on it. If it has signs of infection or if you experience symptoms of cat scratch disease, contact your healthcare provider.
You should be concerned about a cat scratch and visit your healthcare provider if you have:
You should go to the ER if your wound isn’t healing and you have symptoms of an infection that’s spread to other parts of your body, including:
Since cats get B. henselae infections from fleas, it’s less likely that you’d get cat scratch disease from an indoor cat who never goes outdoors. If your cat has had fleas or is newly adopted (especially a kitten), they could have a B. henselae infection.
No, you don’t typically need a tetanus shot after a cat scratches you. But it’s still recommended that you get your initial series of tetanus shots and then get boosted every 10 years after that to be protected from more common ways to get tetanus.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cat scratch fever is a real illness, not just a song that gets stuck in your head. Fortunately for cat lovers, there are simple ways to protect yourself and your cat from infections. If you have any symptoms of cat scratch disease, contact your healthcare provider. They can help you manage your illness and keep an eye out for complications.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/25/2022.
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