Reprinted with permission of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. The original article by Ada McVean B.Sc. can be found here.
Cat scratch disease (CSD) is an infection resulting from a scratch or bite of a cat (or, in rarer cases, dogs or other animals). It is not the same thing as Cat Scratch Fever, an album by Ted Nugent, although CSD can cause a fever, as well as swollen lymph nodes, lethargy, neuroretinitis and headaches.
CSD is the result of an infection by Bartonella henselae, a bacterium commonly transmitted to cats via the cat flea (yes, cats and dogs usually have different fleas). Rarely, ticks and spiders can also carry the bacterium, and transmit it directly to humans.
Kittens are more likely to carry Bartonella henselae than adult cats due to their underdeveloped immune systems, and are much more likely to bite or scratch their owners while learning how to play gently. But anyone who is exposed to cats of any age should take care to clean any wounds well to avoid risk. Bartonella henselae can also be transmitted to humans via cats’ saliva, so as sweet as it may seem that Fluffy is licking your wounds for you, probably best to wash it and wear a Band-Aid.
For veterinarians, CSD is actually considered an occupational hazard. Vets are frequently in close proximity to many cats, oftentimes cats that are acting aggressively and are more likely to bite or scratch. One study found Bartonella DNA in 32 of the 114 veterinarian patients they tested.
CSD is diagnosed via blood test, or simply by considering the symptoms of the patient, the most obvious of which is a swollen blister or sore and red area surrounding the infected bite or cut. Those who are immunocompromised (such as patients with HIV), very young or very old are more likely to be infected, and rates of infection generally increase during spring in North America, likely due to the birth of many new kittens.
So while they may be as cute as anything, cats do still pose a risk to their owners, and not only because they may destroy your favourite furniture.