Cats have a rep for being impeccably clean, right? That’s the conclusion many people have drawn from watching cats endlessly licking themselves—probably the only activity cats spend more time doing than sleeping.
When folks get bit or scratched by a cat though, suddenly all that received wisdom is called into question. Do they really carry germs in their mouths? What is cat-scratch fever anyway? Is that a real thing? Or just the name of a wildly offensive Ted Nugent song?
And, most importantly, should you go straight to emerg if you’re on the losing end of a clash with a cat? I went to Jason Tetro, a.k.a. the “Germ Guy,” to find out.
“Anywhere from about one-third to half of cats have a particular type of bacteria in their mouths called bartonella, which we know as cat-scratch fever or cat-scratch disease,” says Tetro, host of the Super-Awesome Science Show podcast. “They pick that bacteria up from fleas.”
Despite the name, it’s way more likely to get cat-scratch fever from a bite than a scratch, although it’s possible to get it either way if the cat happens to have some bacteria in its paws. It’s actually also possible to get the disease another way, namely, if someone let a cat lick their open wound. That’s pretty hard to imagine anyone letting a cat do, however, so we’ll focus on scratches and bites instead.
“So once you have any kind of bite or scratch you have to wash it incredibly well with soap and water and try to make sure that you’re getting rid of any potential saliva or any other biological material that may have been transferred over,” says Tetro. “And then what you’re going to do is just wait and see if you start to get a fever. If you have headaches or migraines, you want to see your doctor right away.”
Tetro says it’s rare that bartonella henselae will cause serious infections in human “accidental hosts,” and that, with the exception of immuno-suppressed people, most people are safe to wait and see. If symptoms do occur though, seeking out treatment (usually antibiotics) quickly is important, since, in rare cases, it can attack the brain, eyes or heart.
“The other thing is that the lymph nodes, both in your neck and also in your underarms can really become inflamed and swollen and create these sort of eggs underneath your skin,” he says. “If that happens then you definitely want to go and talk to your doctor because that way you can get some treatment and hopefully be able to get rid of it.”
So, after you clean out your wound and wait, is there anything you can do to take your mind off these unsettling scenarios? Yes. First off, take some comfort in the knowledge that cat-scratch fever is way less common in Canada than it is elsewhere.
“Fleas are the driver,” says Scott Weese, director of the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses at the University of Guelph. “And fleas are more common in other places than they are here. We certainly see fleas in Canada, but we don’t have an environment that’s as amenable to fleas as some places in the United States, where they’re more likely to survive outside through the winter.”
Totally indoor cats or even indoor/outdoor cats whose pet parents are diligent with flea control pose a very low risk of cat-scratch fever. What about other diseases, though? Rabies, for example? Although getting bit by a feral cat (that you haven’t provoked) could indicate a more serious disease (and you’ll definitely want to head to the doctor’s office to get that checked out), the last case of rabies in a domestic animal in Toronto was in 2008.
Even the city’s raccoons have a clean bill of health when it comes to rabies. (Distemper is another matter, but we can’t get that disease from them.) Toronto’s bat population can carry rabies. But, with cats, the biggest threat is probably lurking in their litter, which can contain toxoplasma gondii, which is especially dangerous to pregnant women and their fetuses. Tetro says that’s pretty rare, too, but there have been outbreaks. Most pregnant women are advised to get someone else to change their cat’s litter.
All told, human bacteria is probably a bigger problem than cat bacteria. Weese says that, at least in Canada, where the flea population is comparatively low, it’s usually the bugs on our skin that cause the most damage: “The cat might cause it by making the scratch, but the infection probably didn’t come from the cat.”
Maybe they’re cleaner than us after all, as conventional wisdom suggests. Still you want to avoid getting nipped or nicked by a cat if you can help it.
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“A lot of it’s common sense, right?” says Scott Weese. “Cats will usually give you a warning when they’re upset. It’s when people go beyond that warning that you’re going to get scratched.”
In other words, play it safe and just don’t mess with cats. And, if you do, and are on the losing end of the battle, don’t panic. It’s our own bacteria we usually have to be more worried about—not theirs.