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Kitten lovers beware: CDC warns of cat-scratch disease risk

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Attention cat lovers: your feline friends may be harboring germs that can make humans seriously sick.

Though the threat is small, experts warn that people with pet cats should be aware of the risks and take steps to prevent the illness known as cat-scratch disease.

The disease is caused by a bacterium called Bartonella henselae and is transmitted from cats to humans through bites or scratches. 

Also called cat-scratch fever, the illness can cause symptoms ranging from headache to fever to swollen lymph nodes. In rare instances, the disease can lead to further complications of the brain or heart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this month estimating the prevalence of cat-scratch disease in the United States. Results showed that each year, about 12,000 people are diagnosed with the illness and 500 require hospitalization.

To arrive at those numbers, researchers analyzed national health insurance claims databases from 2005 to 2013 for patients age 65 and younger.

“Cat-scratch disease, while rare, still causes a significant number of annual infections, some of which can lead to encephalitis as well as endocarditis, two potentially deadly conditions,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS News. Glatter was not involved in the CDC study.

The report showed that incidence of cat-scratch disease was highest among people who live in southern states and among children ages 5 to 9.

Greg Nelson, a veterinarian and director of surgery and diagnostic imaging at Central Veterinary Associates in Valley Stream, New York, told CBS News that the bacteria that causes cat-scratch fever has been found in as many as 35 percent of cats. He emphasized that when you contrast that to the number of cases of infected humans, the risk is very low.

“We don’t want people who have cats to panic. The likelihood of your cat possessing this bacteria and giving it to you is extremely small, but with that being said, you shouldn’t play aggressively with your cat or teach them to bite or scratch,” he said.

Further steps, such as hand washing after handling cats and cleaning any bites and scratches with soap and water, can also help prevent problems.

Washing your hands​ helps to remove infectious feces from fleas that may be responsible for transmission of the disease,” Glatter said.

If you do get bitten or scratched by a cat, monitor the site closely and contact your physician if you notice swelling or redness, Nelson said. The disease can be treated with antibiotics​.

He also recommends flea prevention medication, even for indoor cats, as the disease is closely associated with these parasites.

If a cat is particularly prone to biting or scratching, it’s best to keep it away from small children, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system, Nelson said, since they are more at risk of developing complications from cat-scratch disease.

“If you do all this, you should really have little worry,” he said.     

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