Cat bite left teen suicidal and hallucinating after he contracted a rare infection

This week, researchers at North Carolina State University published a case study that has fascinated the medical community. The study, which was published in the Journal of Central Nervous Disease, details the mental health deterioration of an unnamed adolescent boy who developed rapid onset schizophrenia.

At first, doctors were baffled by the case, and could not understand how an otherwise healthy teenager had suddenly become psychotic.

After 18 months of treatment - during which time the boy was seen by various specialists and therapists, and received numerous conventional treatments for psychosis and autoimmune disorders - one medical professional finally noticed lesions on the patient's skin, and it turned out to be the answer to everything.

Strangely enough, the teen's symptoms had all been caused by a bite from a cat.

cat in a basket Credit: Pexels

Bartonella henselae, a bacterial infection, is known to be transmitted via cat bites or scratches, and - up until recently - was believed to be a short-lived illness. According to NC State University News, "There are at least 30 different known species of Bartonella, and 13 of those have been found to infect human beings."

Unfortunately, the infection is particularly good at "hiding" in a patient's blood vessels, and can therefore go undetected for long periods of time. What's more, because it often mimics other illnesses (in this case, schizophrenia), it can be very difficult to diagnose.

"This case is interesting for a number of reasons," said veterinary medical scientist Ed Breitschwerdt. "Beyond suggesting that Bartonella infection itself could contribute to progressive neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, it raises the question of how often infection may be involved with psychiatric disorders generally."

He continued:

"Researchers are starting to look at things like infection’s role in Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Beyond this one case, there’s a lot of movement in trying to understand the potential role of viral and bacterial infections in these medically complex diseases. This case gives us proof that there can be a connection, and offers an opportunity for future investigations."

cat yawning Credit: Pexels

In the end, the boy made a full recovery - but, for the year and a half that he had the infection, his life was unbearable.

He was medicated heavily to help him deal with suicidal urges, had to be hospitalised in order to prevent him from being a danger to others, and suffered for long periods of time with outbursts of anger and irrational paranoia. At one point, he even believed that the family cat had a vendetta against him.

Nobody knew at the time, of course, but he was sort of correct.

Thanks to one doctor spotting the marks on his body (which appear like dark stretch marks), he was finally able to receive a treatment that worked.

This case does raise the question of how often microbial infections are dismissed as other illnesses, though, and how wary pet owners should be of the cats they welcome into their homes. Of course, an infection such as this one is incredibly rare - but it just goes to show that we ought to be more cautious around animals, especially if new symptoms arise after interacting with one.