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Cat Scratch Dangers

Cat Scratch Dangers

An installation of the cartoon Garfield features a real-estate-agent flea giving two other fleas a house tour on the back of an unsuspecting Garfield the cat: “Now I’ll be showing you a four-leg, two-ear condo. It’s a perfect flea starter home,” says the insect-broker.

Fleas on cartoon cats may be funny, but in real life they pose a serious health problem. It’s called cat scratch disease (CSD), a flea-borne infection caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

You can become infected if a cat, carrying infected fleas, scratches you or licks an open wound (even a tiny one). Symptoms include fever and headache, swollen or sore lymph nodes near the infection point, and a pustule at the site of the scratch. Sometimes, the infection can cause conjunctivitis-like eye problems (oculoglandular syndrome) or even spread to the lining of your heart (endocarditis), your brain (encephalitis), bones and bone marrow (osteomyelitis).

A new report from the CDC found around 12,500 reported cases every year, 500 of them requiring hospitalization. Kids are most likely to be infected—they have almost 10 cases per every 100,000 people.

So take extra precaution if you have young children, care for the elderly or anyone who is immunocompromised, as they’re more susceptible to CSD complications.

If you have cats, you can prevent CSD by using flea collars, giving them anti-flea baths (you might want to let the vet do it), washing your hands after playing with them, and making sure they don’t contaminate any open scratches or cuts you have.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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