Just How Worried Should I Really Be About Cat Scratch Disease?

Kayleigh Roberts

“Cat Scratch Disease,” (a.k.a. "Cat Scratch Fever") has been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Let’s start by defining exactly what cat-scratch disease is.

According to the CDC, it’s a bacterial infection spread when a cat licks a human’s open wound or bites or scratches hard enough to break skin. Infected people may experience headache, fever, and swollen lymph nodes and, in some rare cases, the heart or brain might be affected. The current hoopla surrounding the disease comes on the heels of the CDC’s report that instances of serious illness as a result of Cat Scratch Fever have increased.

The CDC’s new study looked into just how common the disease is by examining health insurance claims between 2005 and 2013. According to the report, about 12,000 people are diagnosed with cat-scratch disease each year and roughly 500 require hospitalization.

While this might sound dire, it’s important to consider the whole picture before you swear off cuddling with your cat for life. Five hundred hospitalizations a year seems like a lot, but to put things in perspective, the CDC reports that flu-related deaths ranged from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 in the United States alone during the years ranging from 1976-2007. That means, that during the best year in the date range studied, more than six times as many people died of flu than are even hospitalized with Cat Scratch Disease. That’s not to say that the risks surrounding Cat Scratch Disease are insignificant, but it’s important to maintain perspective — especially when cuddles are involved.

Credit: Andy Herd / Flickr

The CDC also notes that serious cases of cat-scratch disease are most likely to occur among children under the age of five or people with weakened immune systems. For healthy adults, the risk of contracting a serious case of the disease is very unlikely. You can also keep an eye on your cat, if you want to be extra cautious. While most infected cats show no symptoms, the CDC says that on rare occasions the disease can cause inflammation of the heart in cats, resulting in noticeably labored breathing.

You can also decrease your chances of contracting Cat Scratch Fever by taking proper care of yourself and your cat. If your cat scratches or bites you enough to draw blood, wash the wound with soap and water and keep your cat away when you have an open wound. Stay away from strange or feral cats (which, hopefully, you were already doing). Give your cat regular flea treatments (approved by your veterinarian) to reduce their risk of becoming a carrier and make sure to keep up with your cat’s regular vet appointments.

If you do happen to contract cat-scratch disease, know that, in otherwise healthy people, treatment is often not even needed. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe a round of antibiotics. If you think you may be infected, check your lymph nodes for swelling, and if they’re swollen, see your doctor immediately.

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Main image credit: Getty