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Cat Scratch Disease in Children

What is cat scratch disease in children?

Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection carried in cat saliva. It is passed from a cat bite or scratch to a human. It can also result from a fleabite, but cats are the main source.

What causes cat scratch disease in a child?

Cat scratch disease is caused by the germ Bartonella henselae. The cat or kitten often appears healthy. The cat licks its paws then scratches or bites the child. If your child rubs their eyes after petting a cat's fur, this can also spread cat scratch disease. Young kittens less than 1 year of age are more likely to scratch. This increases the risk for infection.

What are the symptoms of cat scratch disease in a child?

The following are the most common symptoms of cat scratch disease:

  • A cat bite or scratch that doesn't heal or gets worse over time
  • Painful or swollen lymph glands. These are often under the armpits or on the side of the neck.
  • Flu-like symptoms, including headache, tiredness, decreased appetite, severe tiredness (fatigue), joint pain, or fever
  • Body rash

The symptoms of cat scratch disease may not appear for more than a week after the child is scratched. Sometimes the delay can be as long as 6 weeks. The symptoms may look like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is cat scratch disease diagnosed in a child?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask if your child has had exposure to cats or kittens. They will look for a small bump where the cat scratch has occurred. The provider will check for any swollen lymph nodes. Lab tests are available, but many tests are not considered reliable.

How is cat scratch disease treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Cat scratch disease will often go away without treatment in 2 to 4 months. But your child may need to take antibiotic medicine. Your healthcare provider may also recommend supportive care measures. These include fever-reducing medicines and analgesics (pain medicines) as needed.

What are possible complications of cat scratch disease in a child?

Complications are not common. When they happen, they may include problems with the nervous system, heart, eyes, or other internal organs. These usually occur in people who have a weakened immune system. Healthy children usually do not have a severe disease or complications from cat scratch disease.

What can I do to prevent cat scratch disease in my child?

Teach your child how to play with cats and kittens. Don't let your child play rough or tease them. Doing so can increase the chances of a scratch or bite. If your child does get a cat bite or scratch, wash the area right away with soap and water.

Cat owners should use products to prevent fleas.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if your child develops swollen lymph nodes after being scratched or bitten by a cat. To check lymph nodes, look for bumps under the armpits or on the side of the neck. Also call if your child develops flu-like symptoms, including headache, tiredness, decreased appetite, fatigue, joint pain, or fever.

Key points about cat scratch disease in children

  • Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection carried in cat saliva.
  • Cat scratches and bites can cause cat scratch disease.
  • Symptoms include a cat scratch or bite that doesn't heal, painful or swollen lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, or a body rash.
  • Treatment may include antibiotics but, in most cases, cat scratch disease will go away on its own.
  • It is important to wash the area right away with soap and water if a cat scratches or bites your child.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.