Page header image

Cat Scratch Disease

What is cat scratch disease?

Cat scratch disease is an infection caused by bacteria.

What is the cause?

You can get the disease from an infected cat that scratches, bites, or even licks you. Cats get the infection from fleas. Rarely, the disease is spread by a dog or other animal. It does not pass from person to person.

What are the symptoms?

Infected cats do not act sick, but your child may have the following symptoms about a week after being scratched or bitten:

  • One or more bumps or a sore on the skin where your child was bitten, scratched, or licked.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck or near the bite
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Poor appetite

One to 4 weeks later, the bacteria travel to lymph nodes near the scratch or bite, usually in the armpit, groin, or neck. Lymph nodes make blood cells to fight infection. The lymph nodes become large lumps that are usually painful and may get red.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about symptoms and examine your child. He or she will ask if your child has been around cats and been scratched, bitten, or licked. Usually this is all your provider needs to diagnose this disease.

If your provider is not sure of the diagnosis, your child may have tests such as:

  • A blood test
  • Test of a sample of fluid taken from the lumps

How is it treated?

Often your child will feel better in 1 to 2 weeks even without treatment. If the lymph nodes are very swollen and tender, or if the infection has spread to other parts of the body and become more serious, your child may need antibiotics to kill the bacteria. In very severe cases your child may need to be treated in the hospital. If you think your child might have cat scratch disease, it is best to see your child’s healthcare provider.

The swollen lymph glands usually start to get smaller in 2 months, but they may not go back to their normal size for several months. Sometimes the lymph nodes get scarred from the infection and stay a little larger than normal.

After having cat scratch disease once, it’s very unlikely your child will get it again.

Children who have HIV, an organ transplant, or other conditions that weaken the immune system have a higher risk of complications from cat scratch disease. Complications can include joint pain, prolonged fever, and lung and eye problems.

How can I take care of my child?

Nonprescription pain medicines can help treat headache and fever.

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover from this illness
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent cat scratch disease?

The best way to avoid cat scratch disease is to promptly clean any area of skin that has been scratched, bitten, or licked with lots of soap and water. While some scratches or bites may not be preventable, avoid playing roughly with a cat or kitten.

If your child got the disease from a pet, ask your veterinarian about getting treatment for your cat.

Written by Robert Brayden, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-18
Last reviewed: 2014-05-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
Page footer image