Signs and Symptoms of Cat Scratch Fever

Baby crawling on stomach next to two cats
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If your cat scratches your child, it could lead to infection. The reason: Cats (mostly kittens) can transmit cat scratch fever, or cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection caused by Bartonella henselae. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 40% of cats have carried B. henselae at one time, though most have no symptoms.

The disease is spread through contact with an infected cat (a bite or scratch). It can be spread by a bite or scratch or from contact with cat saliva on broken skin or mucosal surfaces like the nose, mouth, and eyes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Symptoms

Generally, after a scratch or bite from a cat, some pimples will form around the wound as it heals, around 3 - 14 days after the skin is broken. If you suspect your child may have cat scratch disease, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs:

  • Bump (papule) or blister (pustule) at the site of scratch or bite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever 
  • Headaches
  • Overall discomfort 
  • Swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the upper body

Less common symptoms may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Sore throat
  • Weight loss

Treatment

In people who are otherwise healthy, cat scratch fever is not usually serious, and does not generally require treatment. Cat scratch disease usually goes away on its own within two to four months. Typically, people are only tested for cat scratch fever only if the condition is severe and the healthcare provider suspects infection based on the patient's symptoms.

A physical exam followed by a simple blood test, called The Bartonella henselae IFA blood test, is often enough to diagnose the infection. And most people with a healthy immune system recover from the disease fully on their own. However, treatment can sometimes include a course of antibiotics.

Most cases of cat scratch fever are not serious. The bacterial infection usually goes away on its own without treatment within two to four months.

How to Prevent Cat Scratch Fever

Your best bet is to keep your cat (especially if it's a kitten) away from your child. Or, at the very least, curb any vigorous play between the two. It's never too early to teach kids not to tease or provoke pets, especially when the animals are eating or sleeping.

Flea control is also important because this appears to be how cats pass the bacteria to each other (though not to humans). Children should always wash their hands with soap and water after playing with cats and other pets.

What to Do If Your Child Gets Scratched

  • Clean the cat scratch or bite immediately with soap and water.
  • Apply pressure to the wounded area until the bleeding stops.
  • Use a clean bandage or towel and, if possible, use latex-free gloves to protect yourself and to prevent the wound from getting infected.
  • Dry the wound and cover it with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • Call your pediatrician, especially if the cat scratch or bite punctured the skin, and set up an appointment for the wound to be evaluated and treated properly.

Even a slight scratch on your little one's soft, sensitive skin can cause feelings of panic for new parents, but keep in mind that cat scratch fever is not a serious disease.

When to Call a Doctor

While cat scratch fever is generally goes away on its own, it's still important to keep a close eye on the area where the scratch or bite occurred, and monitor your child's symptoms in the days that follow. Call your healthcare provider is your child experiences more serious symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • High fever
  • Redness surrounding the wound
  • Swollen or painful lymph nodes

A Word From Verywell

While cat scratch fever usually isn't dangerous, it's still a good idea to take precautions to prevent it. If you or a loved one is bitten or scratched by a cat, clean the wound well and look for fever, swelling around the wound, and other signs of serious complications.

Although it's rare, cat scratch fever can cause serious health complications in some people. Children around the ages of 5-14 and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. Always contact your physician with questions or concerns after a pet scratch or bite.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should you do if your cat scratched your child?

If your child has a cat bite or scratch, clean the area with soap and water. If it's bleeding, apply pressure until the bleeding stops and cover with a clean bandage. Contact your healthcare provider if your child is showing signs of infection including fatigue, high fever, or swelling or blistering near the would.

How long does cat scratch fever last?

In otherwise healthy people, cat scratch fever usually goes away on its own with two to four months.

How common is cat scratch fever?

Cat scratch fever is not common, and when it does occur, most cases are mild. Younger children and individuals with compromised immunity are most at risk for serious complications.

What causes cat scratch fever?

Cat scratch fever, or cat scratch disease, is transmitted through a bite or scratch from cat carrying the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. CDC. Cat Scratch Disease. Last reviewed January 17, 2020.

  2. NIH Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Cat Scratch Disease. Updated July 20, 2016.

  3. Stanford Children’s Health. Cat Scratch Disease in Children.

  4. Klotz SA, Ianas V, Elliott SP. Cat-Scratch DiseaseAFP. 2011;83(2):152-155.

Additional Reading
  • National Institutes of Health