How Do Cats Get Cat Scratch Disease?

Wild felines can carry cat scratch disease just like housecats can.
i Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images

Most cats don't think much about playing with their claws out, but the possibility of contracting cat scratch disease should increase your motivation for discouraging this behavior. Cat scratch disease isn't particularly dangerous compared to some diseases out there, but it can cause serious complications in people who have weak immune systems.

Flea Dirt

The cat scratch disease bacteria is spread by fleas. Contact with flea excrement is the leading cause of infection in cats and in humans. Cats can get the pathogen in their mouth and on their claws after grooming or itching themselves during a flea infestation.

Although cats can transmit flea dirt and the bacteria to humans by biting or scratching them, felines can share the disease with each other only if infected fleas jump ship, according to the Iowa State University Center for Food Security and Public Health.


Cats can catch cat scratch disease, although they are primarily carriers for the bacteria. Most infected felines don't have any visible signs of the disease. If the kitty has a poor immune system, the disease can cause common health problems, such as a runny nose or labored breathing.

In humans, warning signs of infection include swollen lymph nodes, body pain, headaches and fever. Healthy adults rarely suffer serious side effects and require no treatment to recover from the infection.


The Bartonella bacteria responsible for cat scratch disease is present everywhere in the United States. Studies indicate that around 1 in every 3 cats in the county already has been exposed to the disease. But the risk of infection is much higher in some areas.

The rate is around 5 percent in the Midwest but more than 50 percent in the Southeast, according to The Winn Feline Foundation. Warmer climates are more flea-friendly, because the higher temperature gives these insects more time each year to pursue hosts.


Managing your kitty's flea population is the best way to keep her free of cat scratch disease. You can prevent fleas from gaining a foothold by applying topical ointments regularly. Reactive treatments, such as baths with flea shampoo, are also effective if you don't mind wrestling your kitty into a bathtub.

Keeping your cat inside is a good way to reduce her risk of contracting fleas or coming into contact with cat scratch disease bacteria in the soil. If your kitty does scratch you, wash the area with warm water and antibacterial soap even if the scratch didn't draw blood.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

the nest