Cat-scratch disease

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Cat scratch disease
Synonyms Cat-scratch fever, Teeny's disease, inoculation lymphoreticulosis, subacute regional lymphadenitis[1]
Cat scratch disease - very low mag.jpg
Micrograph of a lymph node affected by cat scratch disease. H&E stain.
Specialty Infectious disease

Cat-scratch disease (CSD) is a common and usually benign infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae.[2][3] It is most commonly found in children following a scratch or bite from a cat.[2] The infection develops at the point of injury within about 3-14 days.[4]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Cat-scratch disease commonly presents as tender, swollen lymph nodes near the site of the inoculating bite or scratch or on the neck, and is usually limited to one side. This condition is referred to as regional lymphadenopathy and occurs 1–3 weeks after inoculation.[5] Lymphadenopathy in CSD most commonly occurs in the arms, neck, or jaw, but may also occur near the groin or around the ear.[2] A vesicle or an erythematous papule may form at the site of initial infection.[2] Most patients also develop systemic symptoms such as malaise, decreased appetite, and aches.[2] Other associated complaints include headache, chills, muscular pains, joint pains, arthritis, backache, and abdominal pain. It may take 7 to 14 days, or as long as two months, for symptoms to appear. Most cases are benign and self-limiting, but lymphadenopathy may persist for several months after other symptoms disappear.[2] The disease usually resolves spontaneously, with or without treatment, in one month.

In rare situations, CSD can lead to the development of serious neurologic or cardiac sequelae such as meningoencephalitis, encephalopathy, seizures, or endocarditis.[2] Endocarditis associated with Bartonella infection has a particularly high mortality.[5] Parinaud's oculoglandular syndrome is the most common ocular manifestation of CSD,[2] and is a granulomatous conjunctivitis with concurrent swelling of the lymph node near the ear.[6] Optic neuritis or neuroretinitis is one of the atypical presentations.[7]

Immunocompromised patients are susceptible to other conditions associated with B. henselae and B. quintana, such as bacillary angiomatosis or bacillary peliosis.[2] Bacillary angiomatosis is primarily a vascular skin lesion that may extend to bone or be present in other areas of the body. In the typical scenario, the patient has HIV or another cause of severe immune dysfunction. Bacillary peliosis is caused by B. henselae that most often affects patients with HIV and other conditions causing severe immune compromise. The liver and spleen are primarily affected, with findings of blood-filled cystic spaces on pathology.[8] In 2015 a Toledo, Ohio woman lost eyesight in an eye after being infected by her pet cat.[9]


Bartonella henselae is a fastidious,[5] intracellular, Gram-negative bacterium.


The cat was recognized as the natural reservoir of the disease in 1950 by Robert Debré.[5] Kittens are more likely to carry the bacteria in their blood, so may be more likely to transmit the disease than adult cats. However, fleas serve as a vector for transmission of B. henselae among cats,[5] and viable B. henselae are excreted in the feces of Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea.[10] Cats could be infected with B. henselae through intradermal inoculation using flea feces containing B. henselae.[11] As a consequence, a likely means of transmission of B. henselae from cats to humans may be inoculation with flea feces containing B. henselae through a contaminated cat scratch wound or by cat saliva transmitted in a bite.[5] Ticks can also act as vectors and occasionally transmit the bacteria to humans.[2] Combined clinical and PCR-based research has shown that other organisms can transmit Bartonella, including spiders.[12][13] Cryptic Bartonella infection may be a much larger problem than previously thought, constituting an unrecognized occupational health hazard of veterinarians.[14]


The Warthin–Starry stain can be helpful to show the presence of B. henselae, but is often difficult to interpret. B. henselae is difficult to culture and can take 2–6 weeks to incubate.[5] The best diagnostic method currently available is polymerase chain reaction, which has a sensitivity of 43-76% and a specificity (in one study) of 100%.[5]


High-magnification micrograph of CSD showing a granuloma (pale cells - right of center on image) and a microabscess with neutrophils (left of image), H&E stain

Cat-scratch disease is characterized by granulomatous inflammation on histological examination of the lymph nodes. Under the microscope, the skin lesion demonstrates a circumscribed focus of necrosis, surround by histiocytes, often accompanied by multinucleated giant cells, lymphocytes, and eosinophils. The regional lymph nodes demonstrate follicular hyperplasia with central stellate necrosis with neutrophils, surrounded by palisading histiocytes (suppurative granulomas) and sinuses packed with monocytoid B cells, usually without perifollicular and intrafollicular epithelioid cells. This pattern, although typical, is only present in a minority of cases.[15]


Cat-scratch disease can be primarily prevented by taking flea control measures and washing hands after handling a cat or cat feces; since cats are mostly exposed to fleas when they are outside, keeping cats inside can help prevent infestation.[16]


Most healthy people clear the infection without treatment, but in 5 to 14% of individuals, the organisms disseminate and infect the liver, spleen, eye, or central nervous system.[17] Although some experts recommend not treating typical CSD in immunocompetent patients with mild to moderate illness, treatment of all patients with antimicrobial agents (Grade 2B) is suggested due to the probability of disseminated disease. The preferred antibiotic for treatment is azithromycin, since this agent is the only one studied in a randomized controlled study.[18]

Azithromycin is preferentially used in pregnancy to avoid the teratogenic side effects of doxycycline.[19] However, doxycycline is preferred to treat B. henselae infections with optic neuritis due to its ability to adequately penetrate the tissues of the eye and central nervous system.[5]


Cat-scratch disease has a worldwide distribution, but it is a nonreportable disease in humans, so public health data on this disease are inadequate.[20] Geographical location, present season, and variables associated with cats (such as exposure and degree of flea infestation) all play a factor in the prevalence of CSD within a population.[21] In warmer climates, the CSD is more prevalent during the fall and winter,[21] which may be attributed to the breeding season for adult cats, which allows for the birth of kittens[21]. B henselae, the bacterium responsible for causing CSD, is more prevalent in younger cats (less than one year old) than it is in adult cats.[20]

To determine recent incidence of CSD in the United States, the Truven Health MarketScan Commercial Claims and Encounters database was analyzed in a case control study from 2005-2013.[22] The database consisted of healthcare insurance claims for employees, their spouses, and their dependents. All participants were under 65 years of age, from all 50 states. The length of the study period was 9 years and was based on 280,522,578 person-years; factors such as year, length of insurance coverage, region, age, and sex were used to calculate the person-years incidence rate to eliminate confounding variables among the entire study population.[22] A total of 13,273 subjects were diagnosed with CSD, and both in- and outpatient cases were analyzed. The study revealed an incidence rate of 4.5/100,000 outpatient cases of cat-scratch disease. For inpatient cases, the incidence rate was much lower at 0.19/100,000 population.[22] Incidence of CSD was highest in 2005 among outpatient cases and then slowly declined. The Southern states had the most significant decrease of incidence overtime. Mountain regions have the lowest incidence of this disease because fleas are not commonly found in these areas.[22]

Distribution of CSD among children aged 5–9 was of the highest incidence in the analyzed database, followed by women aged 60–64. Incidence among female patients was higher than that among male patients in all age groups.[22] According to data on social trends, women are more likely to own a cat over men;[23] which supports higher incidence rates of this disease in women. Risk of contracting CSD increases as the number of cats residing in the home increases.[20] The number of pet cats in the United States is estimated to be 57 million.[21] Due to the large population of cats residing in the United States, the ability of this disease to continue to infect humans is vast. Laboratory diagnosis of CSD has improved in recent years, which may support an increase in incidence of the disease in future populations.[21]


Symptoms similar to CSD were first described by Henri Parinaud in 1889, and the clinical syndrome was first described in 1950 by Robert Debré.[3][5] In 1983, the Warthin-Starry silver stain was used to discover a Gram-negative bacillus which was named Afipia felis in 1991 after it was successfully cultured and isolated. The causative organism of CSD was originally believed to be Afipia felis, but this was disproved by immunological studies in the 1990s demonstrating that cat-scratch fever patients developed antibodies to two other organisms, B. henselae (originally known as Rochalimea henselae before the genera Bartonella and Rochalimea were combined) and B. clarridgeiae, which is a rod-shaped Gram-negative bacterium.[5]


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