This phenomenon was out in full force this week, with headlines like “Cuddling your cute, fuzzy kitten could spell certain doom” and “Cuddling a kitten could kill you, study finds.”
These unnerving warnings referred to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about the U.S. prevalence of cat-scratch disease, a bacterial infection that people can contract from cats. But the idea that simply petting your cat carries a major risk of death is a far cry from reality.
“Yes, cat-scratch [disease] can be fatal, but it is in rare circumstances,” lead researcher Christina Nelson told The Huffington Post. “When people do have atypical manifestations or complications, they can be severe or can lead to death, but that would be an exception.”
Cat-scratch disease, caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae and usually transmitted to people via a cat scratch or bite, is much more likely to cause a mild infection. The rarer, severe complications can affect the brain and heart. Since most cat scratches won’t result in cat-scratch disease, the CDC recommends immediately washing any scratch or bite with hot soap and water, and seeking medical help if the site starts looking infected or a fever occurs. (Cat bites in particular can also be dangerous due to other types of bacteria and the deep puncture wounds that cats’ teeth can create ― so it’s especially important to seek help if a bite wound is red, swollen or increasingly painful.)
Nelson’s research, which looked at insurance claims from 2005 to 2013, found that an estimated 12,000 people each year were diagnosed with cat-scratch disease, and 500 had symptoms severe enough that they had to be hospitalized. Most of those affected were children ages 5 to 9. Though that’s a significant number of people, it’s a relatively small proportion of the 45 million households that the American Pet Products Association estimates include cats.
Researchers did find that the proportion of people hospitalized has increased a bit over the years ― from 3.5 percent between 2005 and 2007, to 4.2 percent between 2011 and 2013. Nelson wasn’t sure why, but suggested it could be the result of doctors getting better at recognizing symptoms.
And when you understand what cat-scratch disease actually is, it’s pretty preventable. The Bartonella henselae bacteria is carried by fleas and is present in their feces. That’s why in the U.S., Nelson said, cases are the most common in the South, where fleas are more prevalent.
Cats transmit the bacteria to humans if the flea droppings get lodged in their nails or teeth, and then they scratch or bite a person. Dogs can transmit it, too, though this is less common.
CDC spokeswoman Kate Fowlie pointed out there’s no evidence that simply cuddling or kissing your cat can lead to cat-scratch disease.
“The bacteria basically has to be inoculated into the skin,” Fowlie said.
Cats can also become infected with cat-scratch disease themselves. They usually don’t show any symptoms, but occasionally they’ll be ill enough to need veterinary treatment. Once infected, it’s unclear how long the bacteria remain in a cat’s system, Nelson said. She also was unsure whether a cat that’s still infected, but is completely free of fleas and flea droppings, can transmit the illness to people.
That said, since kittens are known to be more commonly infected, the CDC says that immunocompromised people who are looking to adopt a cat should seek out a cat older than one year. (A good idea anyway, since older cats in shelters often need some extra help finding a good home.)
And Nelson made it clear that the CDC is definitely not recommending that anyone give up their beloved pets.
“Cats have many benefits and we realize pets are important to people,” she said.
That’s exactly why Nelson said it’s important for people to be aware of the relatively simple ways to prevent cat-scratch disease. Those methods include making sure cats are treated (with veterinary guidance) for any fleas, avoiding rough play that could result in scratches and bites, and keeping cats from hunting outdoors, where they’re more likely to come into contact with the bacteria.