Search Menu
Search entire library by keyword
Choose by letter to browse topics
(A-Z listing includes diseases, conditions, tests and procedures)

Cat Scratch Disease

What is cat scratch disease?

Cat scratches and bites can cause cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection carried in cat saliva. The bacteria are passed from a cat to a human after the cat licks its paws then scratches human skin. Rubbing the eyes after petting a cat's fur can also spread cat scratch disease. Young kittens younger than one year of age are more likely to scratch, increasing the likelihood of infection.

What causes cat scratch disease?

Cat scratch disease is caused by a bacterium carried in the cat saliva. The bacteria are passed from a cat to a human after the cat licks its paws then scratches human skin. Rubbing the eyes after petting a cat's fur can also spread cat scratch disease.

Who is at risk for cat scratch disease?

Factors that can increase your risk for getting cat scratch disease include:

  • Being around cats on a routine basis, especially kittens that are more playful and apt to accidentally scratch you
  • Not cleaning scratches or bites from a cat as soon as you get them
  • Allowing a cat to lick any open wounds that you have
  • Being around a flea infestation

What are the symptoms of cat scratch disease?

The following are the most common symptoms of cat scratch disease. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • A cat bite or scratch that becomes reddened or swollen within a few days and does not heal or worsens over time
  • Painful or swollen glands, especially under the arms (if scratched on the arm or hand), or in the groin (if scratched on the foot or leg)
  • Flu-like symptoms including headache, decreased appetite, fatigue, joint pain, or fever
  • Body rash

The symptoms of cat scratch disease may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is cat scratch disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on a complete history, including a history of being scratched by a cat or kitten, and physical exam.

How is cat scratch disease treated?

Specific treatment for cat scratch disease will be determined by your health care provider based on the following:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the injury
  • Location of the injury
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the injury
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics (to treat the infection)
  • Caring for the symptoms that result from the infection. In many cases, no antibiotics are needed, and the infection will clear on its own.

What are the complications of cat scratch fever?

Most healthy people don’t have complications from cat scratch fever. However, people whose immune systems are weak (due to HIV/AIDS, receiving chemotherapy, or having diabetes) can have complications such as:

  • Bacillary angiomatosis. A disease in which purple spots or nodules form on the skin and internal organs, similar to Kaposi sarcoma
  • Parinaud's oculoglandular syndrome. A condition that involves conjunctivitis (pink eye) in one eye and swollen lymph nodes in front of the ear on the same side

Can cat scratch disease be prevented?

Avoid being scratched or bitten by cats or kittens. If scratched or bitten, wash the area right away with soap and water. Do not allow cats to lick wounds you may have.

When should I call my health care provider?

If a cat scratch or bite becomes red or swollen and you develop flu-like symptoms, including headache, decreased appetite, fatigue, joint pain, or fever, you should contact your health care provider.

Key points about cat scratch fever

  • Cat scratch disease is an infection caused by a bacterium in cat saliva.
  • The disease causes redness and swelling at the site of a cat scratch or bite, and flu-like symptoms.
  • If you are scratched or bitten by a cat or kitten, it is important to wash the area with soap and water.
  • Cat scratch disease can be treated by antibiotics.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Experience Our Care

Find a Doctor Who Specializes in...

Find a physician at another Johns Hopkins Member Hospital:

Find Additional Treatment Centers at: