Dec 16, 2020

Cat scratches may cause madness. New study investigates ‘cat scratch fever’

In 2015, a 14-year-old in North America’s Midwest region began presenting with a series of psychosis-like symptoms and rapid mood changes. 

The teen was seen by psychiatrists, reporting hallucinations, depression and suicidal thoughts, and was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia. But when he started taking his prescribed psychotropic medication, his symptoms only worsened. 

According to the case study published in 2019 by the Journal of Central Nervous System Disease, the teen was not living with schizophrenia at all. His symptoms were due to a scratch he received from his cat. 

“He developed nonspecific somatic symptoms, including excessive fatigue, daily headaches, chest pains, shortness of breath (possible panic anxiety) and urinary frequency,” the report explains.

When the boy’s parents reported seeing strange “stretch mark” like lesions on his thighs and armpits, the doctor determined that what he had was Cat Scratch Disease. After taking antibiotics, the teen made a full recovery. 

Now, a new study out of the University of Missouri Kansas City and North Carolina State University has investigated Cat Scratch Disease and the Bartonella bacteria, which can be spread through insect bites and animal scratches – most commonly those from cats – and the links to psychiatric symptoms. 

The study, which included 33 participants, 29 of whom had the Bartonella bacteria in their system, found that 24 out of the 29 infected developed a range of symptoms. These symptoms included stretch-mark-like skin lesions developing on the skin, and a range of mental symptoms. 

According to the study, the neuropsychiatric symptoms reported by the participants included  “sleep disorders, mental confusion, irritability/rage, anxiety, depression and headache/migraine.” 

Upon further investigation, it was found that a majority of those who had Bartonella in their system had close contact with either animals or bugs, including cats, dogs, birds, horses, bed bugs, fleas, lice or mosquitos, all of which are known to pass Bartonella bacteria on to people. 

While the authors did not formally declare a distinct connection between mental symptoms or nervous-system disorders with Cat Scratch Disease, they did say that the Bartonella bacteria “might contribute” to these neuropsychiatric symptoms. 

While the madness of “cat scratch fever” remains a theory, evidence is increasingly suggesting the link may be accurate.

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