In case you have been letting your cat lick your eyeball lately, here’s a warning: don’t.
A woman in Ohio recently lost vision in her left eye after becoming infected with Bartonella henselae, a pathogen that is normally subclinical in cats but can cause a variety of symptoms in humans.
Bartonella is a bacterium that is transmitted through the saliva of cats, and can be found on their fur as well as in their mouths. It may also be transmitted by inoculating a person through a scratch, hence its common name “cat scratch fever.” About 40 percent of cats will have Bartonella in their lifetime, and it’s a disease that’s found worldwide.
The symptoms of Bartonella infection in humans are fairly diffuse: local swelling at the site of the scratch, lymph node swelling, fever, malaise. Once diagnosed, Bartonella can be treated with antibiotics. In the case of the woman in Ohio, she was diagnosed too late to save her vision, but fortunately that is a very rare presentation of the disease.
So how do you protect yourself and your family against this zoonotic disease? Fortunately, simple basic preventive care and hygiene is the most effective way to reduce your risk of exposure.
- Use flea prevention: the flea is the vector by which cats transmit Bartonella to each other, so regular use of a safe and effective flea medication will reduce your risk of exposure.
- Regular hand washing: since the bacterium is spread through saliva, touching any areas of broken skin after petting your cat could put you at risk.
- Don’t let your cat lick open wounds or mucous membranes: I can’t imagine people doing this as a matter of course to begin with, but just in case it was something you were considering, I would counsel you not to.
Generally speaking, Bartonella is not one of the major zoonotic diseases that make us tremble in our boots. If your cat bites you, get your rear into your doctor ASAP — not because of Bartonella, but because of Pasteurella, another commonly found cat mouth bacterium that causes some terrible local infections in cat bite injuries. Now don’t you feel better?
Not to say we all need to isolate ourselves in a bubble and refuse to touch our pets from here on out. I’ve been living and working with cats my whole adult life and the worst I’ve been exposed to from a pet is ringworm when I was pregnant, one of the more common groups to be susceptible to zoonotic disease.
So there’s only two take home lessons here. With some basic precautions, there’s no reason you need to fear your pet. Also, if your eye seems wonky, don’t mess around, see a doctor. Happy petting!
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
Image: Inga Ivanova / Shutterstock