Bartonella henselae is a small, Gram-negative bacterium that is host-adapted to cats. It may rarely cause mild illness in cats, but most felines, from tiny house cats to the king of the beasts, carry the bacteria with no clinical signs whatsoever. Unfortunately, when B. henselae infects a person it can cause any of several serious conditions (most of which have very long names!).  These include bacillary angiomatosis (formation of masses of abnormal blood and lymph vessels), endocarditis (infection of the lining of the heart), chronic lymphadomegally (enlarged lymph nodes), and pyogranulomatous lymphadenitis, better known as cat scratch disease. There are at least four Bartonella species (among many, many other Bartonella species) that can infect cats, but B. henselae is the most common.  There are at least nine Bartonella species that can infect humans, seven of which are zoonotic.

Between 5% and 40% of cats in the USA have B. henselae in their bloodstream. It is most common in cats from temperate areas, and is much less common in Canada. Bartonella spp. live in the red blood cells of their host – quite a clever strategy really, because it makes the bacteria readily available to be picked up by vectors like blood-sucking fleas, it protects the bacteria from the hosts immune system so it can live there for a long time, and it may even partially protect the bacteria from antibiotics. Cats can maintain a waxing and waning infection for months or even years. The bacterium is transmitted between animals by the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis felis). Studies have shown that transmission does not occur between cats kept in a flea-free environment. Some ticks may also be able to transmit the disease. Diagnosis in cats is difficult – blood culture is the most reliable means, but it is not always sensitive. Antibody production only confirms exposure but not active infection. Polymerase chain reaction is often faster but no more sensitive than blood culture. An effective treatment regimen to eliminate B. henselae infection in cats has yet to be determined.

Transmission of B. henselae from cats to humans is thought to occur through contamination of scratches and bites (broken skin) with flea dirt (i.e. partially digested blood from the infected animal that is excreted by fleas = flea poop). Infection in individuals with weakened immune systems can be extremely serious or even fatal. In otherwise healthy people, the infection tends to remain localized, but can still cause massive swelling and abscessation of local lymph nodes. The type of disease that occurs may depend on the strain of Bartonella involved.

There are a few simple steps people can take to decrease the risk of cat scratch disease. These are particularly important for individuals with compromised immune systems, in which infection can be much more severe:

  • Keep your pets flea- and tick-free. Effective treatment and prevention products are available from your veterinarian.
  • Avoid or prevent situations that may result in bites and scratches from your pet. There is more information about this on the Worms & Germs Resources page and in our archives. If you do accidentally get scratched or bitten, be sure to clean the wound thoroughly. Consider seeking medical attention for bites in particular.
  • Be aware of where cats come from. Stray or shelter cats less than one year old are most likely to be infected with B. henselae.

It is also important to note that there is NO evidence that declawing cats decreases the risk of transmission of B. henselae to humans!

As a point of interest, Bartonella quintana (a human-adapted Bartonella species) was the cause of trench fever in World War I, and was transmitted by lice.