Bartonellosis is a disease carried by fleas, but usually transmitted to humans mostly by cats .
The causative agent, Bartonella spp., is a bacterium. Researchers have identified 26 species, although it is unknown how many actually infect people.
Here is the cycle of the disease: First, a population of fleas becomes infected by Bartonella. Fleas are not affected by the organism. Bartonella organisms are discharged in the fleas’ feces. In the process of grooming and scratching themselves, cats’ nails, and possibly teeth, have flea feces embedded. Thus a bite or scratch can transmit the bacteria to a human.
The cat is also systemically infected, but most cats experience little or no ill effects from Bartonella. Therefore, if a cat has Bartonella organisms in its bloodstream, blood from the cat can also infect people. Possible scenarios include a needle stick contaminated with feline blood or a person with an open wound into which a cat might bleed.
There is some debate among experts about whether cat saliva may transmit the organism.
Theoretically a dog should be able to infect a person the same ways, but the organism that infects dogs rarely infects humans. Dogs also show little or no evidence of Bartonella infection.
If a person is diagnosed with Bartonellosis (and the condition is below many physicians’ radar), he has approximately a 95% chance of being cured.
The remaining few, however, may be forced to live with chronic illness. Signs include intermittent fever, lethargy, headaches, anorexia, skin lesions, stomach irritation, cardiac arrhythmias, inflammation of the lining of the heart, eye lesions, shortness of breath, chronic pain and numbness of extremities.
As you can easily imagine, this list of symptoms might easily confuse a clinician into thinking of Lyme disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, even hypochondria or other mental illnesses.
Anyone who handles cats might be at risk. Of course, the greater and more varied the population of cats you are exposed to, the greater the risk. While veterinarians and their staffs come to mind first, pet owners have a certain level of risk, too. And, the person with 20 cats has a higher risk than the occupant of a single-cat household.
Still, a single scratch from a lone cat could be your downfall if his fleas are carrying the organism.
Simple hygiene is important, too. Wash your hands after handling your kitty. If you get a scratch or bite, clean and disinfect the wound(s) quickly and thoroughly. And, if you experience any of the above symptoms, see your physician right away.
See you tomorrow, Dr. Randolph.