If you are a cat owner in the U.S., the chances of your pet carrying the Bartonella bacteria are one in three, according to National Veterinary Lab, one of the oldest private veterinary laboratories in the U.S. Some studies (1), however, indicate 41 percent of cats carry the bacteria, but show no symptoms. The real danger of the bacteria is that as a zoonotic, meaning it transfers to humans (and also dogs), where it may cause many health problems.
Despite Bartonella bacteria’s prevalence among the feline population, cat owners know little about it. Healthy cats can carry seven strains of the bacteria family in their blood. Cat to cat transmission is via fleas and ticks, but humans get it from cat scratches, bites, contact with fur and, rarely, by flea and tick bites. Bartonella transmitted from cats can cause 22 different human diseases, the most common of which is cat scratch fever. More than 22,000 human cases occur each year, and about 10% require hospitalization. Most patients develop symptoms about two weeks after the scratch or bite incident, and the first presentation is a red papule (bump) at the site. It progresses when lymph nodes draining the injury become inflamed and enlarged, possibly forming an abscess. Severe and untreated cases may create neurological problems or progress to organ involvement. Other Bartonella diseases are blood disorders, capillary problems, bacterial infections, heart diseases, eye diseases, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal diseases, skin diseases, and co-infection with Lyme disease.
Needless to say, Bartonella is scary and cat owners should beware and be aware of how to prevent and detect it. First and foremost, all cats need to be on flea and tick prevention, regardless of whether the cat lives indoors or outdoors. Indoor cats come in contact with fleas and ticks, so it is imperative to never let prevention lapse. Sadly, vigilant flea and tick prevention may not keep cats safe. The product must prevent the flea or tick from actually biting the cat, and most of the products currently on the market, though effective, do not work in this manner 100% of the time. Additionally, pets adopted as strays or from shelters may develop a Bartonella infestation prior to beginning an at home prevention program. Therefore, the doctors at Animal Hospitals Champions Northwest and Jones Road recommend that all healthy cats undergo the simple Bartonella blood test to make sure the pets are disease free.
Treatment of Bartonella is typically successful with a course of antibiotics and most healthy cats respond to therapy. The veterinarian will retest after completion of the antibiotic cycle, and sometimes a second or third therapy is necessary if the test remains positive. It is possible for a cat to reacquire the disease, thus making flea and tick prevention vital. Additionally, removing the risk factors from the pet’s home environment will add to this protection. The risk factors for Bartonella are originating as a stray, coming from a shelter, living in a multi-cat household, going outdoors and residing in wet, humid areas. Theoretically, that means all cats in the Houston area are at risk. Some cats are Bartonella carriers, and are asymptomatic (show no symptoms of the disease). Those which become sick from the bacteria may experience inflammation in the oral and respiratory mucosa, ocular tissues, the gastrointestinal tissues, the skin and organs such as the liver, spleen and lymph nodes. However, Bartonella penetrates the cells that make up the walls of the capillaries, and because they exist in all tissues, all organs are susceptible.
While cats are the primary hosts of the Bartonella bacteria among domestic pets, dogs can carry it as well. Research indicates that ticks, more often than fleas, transmit the disease among dogs. Therapy for canines is similar to cats. To avoid the risk of Bartonella in your household, we ask that you carefully consider testing your pets for the disease. Peace of mind may well be worth the expense.
(1)Prevalence of Bartonella henselae antibodies in pet cats throughout the regions of North America. J Infectious Diseases 1995: 172:1145-1149