Medical Minute 12-28: Cat Scratch Fever

By: Ramin Khalili
By: Ramin Khalili

The neighbor's dog, your kid's cat, the fleas in the front yard. They could all have Bartonella, and North Carolina State University's Doctor Ed Bright Schwerd says that's bad news.

"In my opinion, Bartonella may prove to be the most important emerging infectious disease of the next decade," said Ed Breitschwerdt, D.V.M., North Carolina State University Raleigh, North Carolina.

It's an infection linked to heart valve disease and may have a role in neurologic and arthritic disease. Still, few people even know what it is.

Essentially, it's the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease. But experts say most any animal with claws tainted by flea feces can transmit it, which makes treatment tough.

"The organism changes its nature, its outer surface, again, so that the immune system cannot eliminate it," said Ed Breitschwerdt, D.V.M.

Forty percent of cats carry Bartonella at some point.With 24,000 annual cat scratch cases, up to 90 percent of those affected will see a rash, nausea and weight loss. Less than 20 percent could see sensory loss, pneumonia or encephalitis.

"Understanding transmission is of critical, critical performance," said Ed Breitschwerdt, D.V.M.

While Bartonella can circulate in the blood of cats and dogs, it can cause tumor-like lesions in people. It's tough to detect because it stays in human blood in very low levels.

"I think in the context of bartonella, I think there's many, many more questions right now than answers."

With research now including sick dolphins and whales, Bright-Schwerd says you need to be concerned now.

Tracey Peak North Carolina State University

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