Cat-Scratch Disease and Cat Bites: What to Know — What to Do

Joseph R Anticaglia MD
Medical Advisory Board

About 25% of households in the US own one or more cats, which means close to 32 million families are feline friendly. If you belong to one of those families, who among you can say, “I never have been scratched or bitten by a cat?”

U. S. Library of Medicine

Elaine has loved and owned cats since childhood. She visited her sister one afternoon who owns a three year old orange tabby cat named Simba. He was rescued from the humane society. “I bent down to pet the cat and for some reason, Simba bit my right hand in the space of the first two knuckles and wouldn’t let go. What happened next was scary.”

My hand hurt and it became red and swollen. I didn’t think much about it until several hours later when it became very painful, I had trouble moving my fingers and the swelling was creeping up toward my right elbow.

I went to an urgent care center and the doctor immediately referred me to a hand surgeon who said, ‘This is a serious infection that can spread to the lymph glands and throughout your body. I want you to take these antibiotics and return to my office in two days. Call me immediately if you’re getting worse. We may have to operate.’

“Fortunately, the antibiotics worked so I didn’t need surgery. But I developed lymph nodes in the underarm on right side and it took a few months before they disappeared. And I can’t completely flex the first two fingers of my right hand.

These are some of the things I learned from personal experience, my doctor and reading about cat scratch disease (CSD) and bites. It’s also called “Cat-Scratch Fever.”

Cat Scratch Disease

  • CDS is a bacterial infection that people can get after being licked, scratched or bitten by cat.
  • The bacteria that cause CSD live in the saliva of cats (Bartonella henselae)
  • CSD is not contagious
  • Symptoms can vary from a minor scratch to a serious illness.
  • CSD can cause fever, headache, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes, most often in the underarm or neck regions.
  • Diagnosis is usually made by a person’s exposure to a cat scratch or bite.
  • Symptoms are usually mild but at times severe
  • Having experienced CSD usually makes you immune to it for the rest of your life.
  • Fleas spread the disease among cats.


  • Avoid petting stray or unfamiliar cats
  • Kids ought to avoid teasing or rough play with family cats
  • Wash your hands after removing cat litter or handling or playing with your cat
  • Wash the scratched area with soap and water to minimize infection
  • Keep the house and cat free of fleas

When to See the Doctor

  • When the involved area becomes red, swollen and is expanding
  • You have painful lymph nodes
  • You developed a fever and feeling worse instead of getting better
  • Excessive tiredness for more than 2 or 3 weeks
  • Abdominal, bone or joint pain

Cats become an important part of the family. They are often an emotional tonic that provokes laughter improving your mood while making you forget your troubles for a while. Although most cat scratches and bites are mild, cats, at times, carry harmful bacteria in the saliva that can cause serious diseases.


  1. American Veterinary Medical Association; AVMA releases latest stats on pet ownership and veterinary care; 11/19/18
  2. Statistics Portal; 2018 Number of households in the U. S. from 1960 to 2018 (in millions).
  3. Raluca Papadopol, MD; Cat Scratch Disease; Kids Health Dec. 2014
  4. Am Acad Fam Physicians; Cat-Scratch Disease; May 19, 2017

This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.