It’s difficult to think of Ted Nugent as a medical prodigy, but it turns out that he really was on to something. He sang about “Cat Scratch Fever” years ago, but we’ve only recently learned a great deal more about the causative organism of this illness that afflicts people, and what a serious threat it actually poses. What is more, we now know that it is the agent behind several serious diseases in cats, and even dogs. A large percentage of our family pets have actually been exposed, often without demonstrating any clinical signs of illness for years. One scratch from the infected pet, though, can lead to a wide range of life-threatening illnesses in humans.
The organism is a bacterium called Bartonella, and there are at least 20 different species that can produce disease. They are widespread in nature, infecting many animal species from wild rodents, ruminants, pet animals, to humans. Bartonella are most frequently transmitted between animals by insects such as fleas, ticks, biting flies, and lice. Direct animal to animal transmission does occur though, as in cases of cat to human transmission via scratches, bites, and even fur contact.
This problem takes on added significance because, according to the National Veterinary Laboratory, infection rates of cats in Texas are among the highest in the nation. At a recent seminar, I learned that up to 65% of cats in this state harbor the Bartonella organisms; a stunning number that represents a massive reservoir of infection and disease for both cats and humans.
Different animals are infected by various Bartonella species, but any cat that is exposed to the organism can at some time pass it to another animal or a human. After exposure, the organism penetrates erythrocytes (red blood cells) and cells lining blood vessel walls, from where they produce disease in tissues throughout the body. In certain individuals, infection stimulates the body’s immune system to mount a defense against the invading organism, resulting in the chronic, possibly life-long disorders affecting diverse sites in the body such as: the oral cavity (Figures 1 and 2), eyes, respiratory tract, heart, gastrointestinal tract, and skin.
Figure 1: severe gingivitis is very common in cats with Bartonella.
Courtesy of Virginia Veterinary Dentists
Figure 2: Bartonella often leads to this painful inflammation of the oral cavity, called stomatitis. Courtesy of Virginia Veterinary Dentists
Bartonella has very recently been associated with feline diabetes. Even though these diseases can be severe, only a relatively few of the infected animals develop clinical disease, making it more difficult to identify those animals that constitute a threat to humans.
We learned at a recent seminar that a human victim of Bartonella, contracted through a playful swat from his cat, died of heart disease that resulted as a consequence of the infection. The cat had been an asymptomatic carrier of the organism, and was only diagnosed as positive after the owner became infected.
Whether the cat is an asymptomatic carrier or actually develops disease symptoms, we can finally determine whether it carries the infection and poses a risk to humans by sending a blood sample to the National Veterinary Laboratory. Now, after years of being been ill-equipped to help these infected cats, we’ve also found – at last - means of very effective treatment with specific antibiotics.
The most current recommendations to feline pet owners:
- Have cats newly introduced into household – especially those obtained as strays, from shelters or animal rescue organizations tested for Bartonella.
- Any cat that has been infested with fleas should be tested.
- It is especially important that cats owned by people with young children and those people who are immunosuppressed by chemotherapy, organ transplants, or HIV infection should have their cats tested for Bartonellosis.
- All cats with severe inflammatory diseases should be tested.
- Cats testing positive for Bartonella pose a threat of transmission to other cats and humans.
- Children are at greater risk of exposure than adults, and boys are infected more often than girls because they play with cats more roughly.
- Positive cats that bite and scratch are more likely to infect humans.
- Flea and tick control is a mainstay of preventing feline infection.
Consult your Veterinarian for more information about Bartonella; diseases it causes and methods of cure in cats, and the threat posed to people.
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