A vet has revealed her alarm after experiencing symptoms so serious doctors suspected she had either a brain tumor or MS – only to discover her shocking condition stemmed from a simple cat scratch at work.
Struck down by exhaustion, muscle pain, shakes, night sweats, a soaring temperature, and swollen, aching joints, mom-of-two Victoria Altoft, 41, of Wellington, Somerset, assumed she was developing flu.
But when weeks passed without improvement and her vision became blurred, she was sent to see a hospital ophthalmologist for an eye examination, as well as having an MRI scan and a lumbar puncture, testing her cerebrospinal fluid, as medics suspected she had a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis (MS), which affects the brain and spinal cord.
Victoria and a cat – not the one that scratched her (PA Real Life/Collect)
Shockingly, it transpired that Victoria had become infected with the Bartonella bacteria after being scratched by a flea-ridden cat at work weeks earlier, the long-lasting effects about which little is known.
She said: “All I know is that I was scratched back in the autumn of 2010 and I'm still suffering with fatigue all these years later. When the symptoms first began, though, nobody was sure what was going on, which was very scary.
“I remember wondering if I could cope with going blind, or having a tumor. To this day, it's difficult to know exactly what the long-lasting effects of contracting Bartonella are, as there is so little research, but I know I'm not the same now as I was before it happened."
Victoria, who has two children, Genevieve, 11, and Oliver, five, with her vet husband Stuart, 39, is used to cat scratches being an occupational hazard.
And, while the scratch that caused her infection was particularly deep, she never dreamed it would make her so sick and did not connect the dots when her flu-like symptoms started.
She recalled: “At first I assumed I had flu. I had muscle pain, shakes, night sweats and a temperature. I ended up taking about two weeks off work, which is unusual for me – I never take time off – but I was utterly exhausted. I just couldn't get out of bed."
Victoria (PA Real Life/Collect)
Eventually, Victoria attempted to go back to work, staying for around three weeks – during which time she visited the doctor about some swelling in her joints, but was told it was likely a case of post-viral inflammation.
Then she started having worrying visual disturbances, adding: “They are quite hard to explain, but it was almost the blurred vision and floaters you get before a migraine.
“I kept waiting for the blinding headache to come, but it never did. Eventually I realized I wouldn't be able to do my job safely if I couldn't see clearly, so went home from work and made an appointment with my doctor."
There, Victoria had her retinas examined, and an urgent referral to the ophthalmology department of Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, Somerset was made.
She continued: “The doctor was visibly concerned. I believe the worry was that I had a brain tumor."
At hospital Victoria had an MRI scan, as well as a lumbar puncture to test her cerebrospinal fluid in case she had MS.
Victoria (PA Real Life/Collect)
Luckily, the test results for a tumor or MS were negative, but they revealed a high level of antibodies to Bartonella in her system.
Piecing together the puzzle, doctors realized she had been infected by the cat scratch weeks previously.
According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the bacterium Bartonella can cause a number of illnesses in humans – the most common being the fittingly-named cat scratch disease.
"When the symptoms first began, though, nobody was sure what was going on, which was very scary. I remember wondering if I could cope with going blind, or having a tumor."
— Victoria Altoft
Cats and kittens become infected with Bartonella through flea bites – though they can often carry it without becoming ill themselves – and so can pass the bacteria on to humans through an open wound, like a scratch.
Victoria explained: “When they told me my diagnosis, it made a lot of sense. I'd only heard of mild reactions to Bartonella before, where it only affected the area local to the scratch.
“In my case, the reaction was systemic – meaning it affected my entire body – so it never occurred to me the cat scratch was to blame."
Given rifampin, an antibiotic used to treat several different bacterial infections, as well as tuberculosis and leprosy, now, nearly nine years on, she is still suffering with fatigue but, because of the scant research into the long-term impact of a Bartonella infection, is unsure if they are connected.
“It's difficult to say for sure if it's because of the cat scratch, but I am definitely not the same. I work part-time now and can't see a way of ever being able to go back to full time," she said.
“It was also a good year before my sight fully returned to normal. The difficulty is Bartonella is not very well understood, especially the long-term effects, so nobody really knows how it will affect me."
Victoria and her daughter (PA Real Life/Collect)
Now, Victoria is speaking out to raise awareness of the threat fleas can pose to human health, and is backing The Big Flea Project, a study of vet practices conducted by pharmaceutical company MSD Animal Health in partnership with the University of Bristol.
A survey carried out by The Big Flea Project revealed that 79 per cent of Brits admitted they did not know fleas carried pathogens, that can cause disease, such as Bartonella – despite a third of people saying they had been bitten, with five per cent left permanently scarred as a result.
Victoria said: “Most people see fleas as a bit of an irritation, but don't realize the serious risks they pose to human health. As a vet, I see people vaccinating their animals routinely, but being quite flippant with flea treatment."
She added: “It also now horrifies me when children go up to cats in the street and start stroking and playing with them, as often in these situations a cat could become stressed and turn on them.
“If scratched, parents would be unaware that the child could have been exposed to fleas carrying Bartonella.
“Going through this really impacted on me. Now I want to do all I can to help raise awareness."
Victoria and her family (PA Real Life/Collect)
A spokesperson from MSD said: “Dr. Altoft's story highlights just how serious flea infestations can be. Her health suffered significantly in the weeks after she contracted Bartonella, with her having to take time off work, and being unable to drive for some weeks after her vision was disturbed.
“We hope pet owners read Dr. Altoft's story and ensure their animals' flea treatments are kept up-to-date as a precaution to protect both pets and humans."
For more information visit the Big Flea Project website: www.bigfleaproject.co.uk