Cat-Scratch Disease

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OpenStax Microbiology

The zoonosis cat-scratch disease (CSD) (or cat-scratch fever) is a bacterial infection that can be introduced to the lymph nodes when a human is bitten or scratched by a cat. It is caused by the facultative intracellular gram-negative bacterium Bartonella henselae. Cats can become infected from flea feces containing B. henselae that they ingest while grooming. Humans become infected when flea feces or cat saliva (from claws or licking) containing B. henselae are introduced at the site of a bite or scratch. Once introduced into a wound, B. henselae infects red blood cells.

B. henselae invasion of red blood cells is facilitated by adhesins associated with outer membrane proteins and a secretion system that mediates transport of virulence factors into the host cell. Evidence of infection is indicated if a small nodule with pus forms in the location of the scratch 1 to 3 weeks after the initial injury. The bacteria then migrate to the nearest lymph nodes, where they cause swelling and pain. Signs and symptoms may also include fever, chills, and fatigue. Most infections are mild and tend to be self-limiting. However, immunocompromised patients may develop bacillary angiomatosis (BA), characterized by the proliferation of blood vessels, resulting in the formation of tumor-like masses in the skin and internal organs; or bacillary peliosis (BP), characterized by multiple cyst-like, blood-filled cavities in the liver and spleen. Most cases of CSD can be prevented by keeping cats free of fleas and promptly cleaning a cat scratch with soap and warm water.

The diagnosis of CSD is difficult because the bacterium does not grow readily in the laboratory. When necessary, immunofluorescence, serological tests, PCR, and gene sequencing can be performed to identify the bacterial species. Given the limited nature of these infections, antibiotics are not normally prescribed. For immunocompromised patients, rifampin, azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, gentamicin (intramuscularly), or TMP-SMZ are generally the most effective options.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: