Update on Feline Bartonella Infections

Update on Feline Bartonella Infections

By Dr. Ed Mapes
Stonebridge Animal Hospital
McKinney, Tx

We published an article one year ago that introduced pet owners to the diseases caused by feline Bartonella infection. We pointed out the research showing that 65% of cats in Texas have been exposed to the bacterial organism, with many of those cats showing symptoms. In the year since that article appeared, we have treated over 30 patients with Bartonella at this hospital, and just this past week diagnosed five additional cases.

This organism is still largely unknown to most cat owners who have never heard of Bartonella when we introduce the subject. It’s important for Veterinarians to warn clients of possible infection in their cats because it can be spread to humans by a simple scratch or bite by their pet, and the diseases in humans can be serious – even life threatening.

The organism is most often contracted by cats via flea or tick bites, but we suspect it can be spread from cat to cat by direct contact as well. Simply preventing flea infestations goes a long way in prevention against this terrible organism, so in this case knowledge is power.

Signs of signs of illness are often subtle in cats. The organism causes inflammatory reactions in many organs and tissues throughout the body, and symptoms can mimic other disorders. Many cats have chronic nasal and eye inflammation with discharges with sneezing. Some have intermittent skin lesions that appear and disappear, diarrhea, lethargy, and some cats even develop diabetes as a sequel to infection. The most common sign, though, is a distinct red line of inflammation on the gums where they meet the teeth. This inflammation is present even in cats without dental tartar or calculus formation. We often see reddened areas of inflammation in the back areas of the oral cavity as well.

Once we suspect Bartonellosis, diagnosis involves blood tests sent to the National Veterinary Laboratory in New Jersey, and results take about five days. If there are multiple cats in the household, there is a good chance all will have the disease. We also test for viral diseases (feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, and infectious peritonitis) that can occur in conjunction with Bartonella, and make its treatment more difficult.

We treat these cases with the antibiotics azithromycin and doxycycline for three to six weeks or more to combat the organism, and sometimes interferon (Intron), which stimulates the immune system to fight the viral infections if present. Many patients receive other medications to treat specific disorders in particular body systems affected.

It is important that people get examined by their own doctors once we make the diagnosis in their cat, since the possibility of infection cannot be ignored. This may involve testing and medication. Any household with young children or adults with an immune deficiency from chemotherapy, organ transplant, or HIV are at particular risk of serious consequences, and should consider the added risk of living with an infected cat.

We have found that approximately 85% of cases have had satisfactory recovery after treatment; some cats however do not respond to medications and the situation becomes a chronic management issue.

We encourage cat owners to check their pets for signs of Bartonellosis, and to please contact your veterinarian if infection is a possibility.

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