You probably thought cat scratch fever was no big deal. But it turns out that a simple claw mark from the family feline can send you to the hospital, or worse.
The neighbor's dog, your kid's cat, and the fleas in the front yard could all have bartonella. Veterinarian Ed Breitschwerdt says that's bad news.
"In my opinion, bartonella may prove to be the most important emerging infectious disease of the next decade," said Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, DVM, North Carolina State University.
Bartonella is an infection linked to heart valve disease and may have a role in neurologic and arthritic disease. Still, few people even know what it is.
It's the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease, but experts say most any animal with claws tainted by flea feces can transmit it, which makes treatment tough.
"The organism changes its nature, its outer surface, again, so that the immune system cannot eliminate it," said Dr. Breitschwerdt.
Forty percent of cats carry bartonella at some point. With 24,000 annual cat scratch cases, up to 90 percent of those affected will see a rash, nausea and weight loss. Less than 20 percent could see sensory loss, pneumonia or encephalitis.
"Understanding transmission is of critical, critical importance," said Dr. Breitschwerdt.
While bartonella can circulate in the blood of cats and dogs, it can cause tumor-like lesions in people. But it's tough to detect.
"I think in the context of Bartonella, there's many, many more questions right now than answers," said Dr. Breitschwerdt.
With research now including sick dolphins and whales, he says you need to be concerned now.
Bartonella can cause sudden death in a very small number of cases. Diagnosis can be confirmed with a specialized blood culture approach. Still, only a few antibiotics successfully treat the disease.
Bartonella is transmitted from the lick, bite or scratch of an infected animal. Kittens are more likely to carry the bacterium than grown cats, but any pet who comes in contact with fleas is at risk.