Understanding cat-scratch disease
An Infectious Diseases physician explains how your family cat can make your child sick
The only one in your house who may be more curious than the cat is your kid.
But be careful when your child is chasing his furry friend. New research shows that children are among the highest at risk for cat-scratch disease (CSD).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on CSD that stated that incidence of CSD was highest among those who lived in southern states and among children 5-9 years of age. Hospitalization is more common in males 50 to 64 years of age. The CDC estimates that each year 12,000 outpatients are given a CSD diagnosis and 500 inpatients are hospitalized.
Bartonella henselae is the bacterium that causes the disease. The bacteria live in infected cats’ saliva, but the cats do not develop symptoms or become ill. Often times, the kittens or cats may carry the bacteria for months.
Fleas spread the bacteria between cats, but humans get cat scratch disease after being scratched, having an open sore licked, or getting bitten. Humans are more likely to acquire this infection from a kitten than from a grown cat.
CSD is not spread from person to person, but multiple cases can happen in the same family if everyone has had contact with the infected cat.
Symptoms are usually mild. Commonly children will develop a swollen lymph node above the scratch site, such as in the underarm above a scratch on the hand or arm. In extremely rare circumstances, the disease can lead to complications of the brain or heart.
“The good news is that this is normally not anything too serious and most people only have one episode of cat scratch disease. That one case usually makes them immune for the rest of their lives,” said Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s. “Antibiotics are rarely required to treat and only for the most severe forms of the disease.”
Dr. Whitworth advises parents to talk to their children on how to properly handle their cats and to stay away from stray or unfamiliar cats.
“Parents don’t have to get rid of their family pet in fear of cat scratch disease,” Dr. Whitworth said. “The chance of this occurring is rare and in most cases the disease is mild. Making sure your child knows how to treat the pet is important. Teach them not to play roughly with the cat and make sure to wash your hands after handling the pet. Controlling fleas is also very helpful.”
If your child is scratched by a pet, wash the injured area well with soap and water. Call a doctor if you noticed your child has swollen or painful lymph nodes in an any area of the body or:
- The bite or scratch doesn’t heal in an appropriate manner.
- The redness of the wound increases.
- Significant fever occurs.
About the source
Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D. is the medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s, which offers care for children and teens with diseases caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses. Our team provides a broad range of services including diagnosis, inpatient and outpatient consultations, immune deficiency evaluations and treatment of recurring infections.