Vet, 41, battles extreme fatigue every day after a cat scratch at work nine years ago left her so ill doctors thought she had a brain tumour
- Victoria Altoft thought nothing when she suffered a deep scratch in 2010
- Developed muscle pain, night sweats and aching joints weeks later
- Tests showed she was infected with Bartonella bacteria from a flea-ridden cat
A vet was thought to be suffering from a brain tumour after a cat scratch left her shaking, exhausted and battling a soaring temperature.
Victoria Altoft, of Wellington, Somerset, was not concerned when a cat scratched her at work at the end of 2010.
And when she developed muscle pain, night sweats and aching joints weeks later, the now 41-year-old assumed she was just coming down with the flu.
But soon after the mother-of-two’s vision started to blur, leaving her panicking she may be going blind.
After being referred for an urgent hospital appointment, medics worried it may be a brain tumour or early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS).
Mrs Altoft was forced to endure an MRI scan and a lumbar puncture to test her spinal fluid.
Although these came back clear, doctors later discovered she had become infected with the Bartonella bacteria after being scratched by a flea-ridden cat.
Despite taking antibiotics, Mrs Altoft still suffers extreme fatigue nine years after she was scratched.
Victoria Altoft was thought to be suffering from a brain tumour after a cat scratch at work in 2010 left her shaking, exhausted and battling a soaring temperature. Pictured nine years later with her pet, not the one that scratched her, the 41-year-old still battles fatigue every day
Mrs Altoft thought nothing of her flu-like symptoms until her vision blurred. Thinking she was going to blind, the mother-of-two was tested for a brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. Doctors then discovered high levels of the Bartonella bacteria, which is transmitted via fleas. Mrs Altoft is pictured with her husband Stuart, 39, and their children Genevieve, 11 and Oliver, five
Speaking of the ordeal, Mrs Altoft said: ‘All I know is I was scratched back in the autumn of 2010 and I’m still suffering with fatigue all these years later.
‘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.’
Mrs Altoft, who is mother to Genevieve, 11, and five-year-old Oliver, is used to being scratched by cats at work.
Despite this scratch being particularly deep, she never would have assumed it was causing the flu-like symptoms she endured weeks later.
‘At first I assumed I had flu,’ Mrs Altoft said. ‘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.’
Mrs Altoft, whose husband Stuart, 39, is also a vet, eventually managed to stumble into work, where she persevered through her symptoms for around three weeks.
During this time she went to her GP complaining of swollen joints, which was dismissed as post-viral inflammation.
Things then took a dramatic turn for the worse when Mrs Altoft started struggling to see.
‘It was almost the blurred vision and floaters you get before a migraine,’ she said. ‘I kept waiting for the blinding headache to come, but it never did.
‘Eventually I realised 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.’
Pictured with her daughter, Mrs Altoft claims she has ‘not been the same’ since the scratch
It took a year for her sight to return to normal and she cannot imagine working full time again
Mrs Altoft’s GP examined her retinas, the layer of nerve cells that line the back wall inside the eye.
She was then referred for an urgent appointment at the ophthalmology department of Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton.
‘The doctor was visibly concerned,’ Mrs Altoft said. ‘I believe the worry was I had a brain tumour.
‘I remember wondering if I could cope with going blind or having a tumour.’
While at hospital, Mrs Altoft had an MRI scan and lumbar puncture.
Although the results came back negative for both a brain tumour and MS, they revealed she had abnormally high levels of the antibodies for Bartonella in her system.
Antibodies are proteins that are made by the immune system to fight off pathogens.
Doctors asked Mrs Altoft if she had recently been scratched by a cat and managed to piece the puzzle together.
‘When they told me my diagnosis, it made a lot of sense,’ she said.
‘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.’
Mrs Altoft thought Bartonella bacteria just affected the scratched area, not the entire body
Pictured with her family, Mrs Altoft is raising awareness of the dangers of ticks to humans
WHAT ARE BARTONELLA BACTERIA?
Bartonella bacteria can cause infectious illnesses, such as ‘cat scratch disease’, in humans.
Roughly 15 different species make up the bacterial group.
The pathogens are usually transmitted by fleas, but can also be spread via animal bites or scratches, or contaminated needles.
Not all species of Bartonella are thought to cause disease in healthy people.
However, B. henselae or ‘cat scratch disease’, affects around 20,000 people a year in the US. Its prevalence in the UK is unclear.
Cat scratch disease causes a small swelling and rash at the affected site within a week or so.
This usually then develops into a pus-filled blister.
Healthy people are rarely affected further, however, the bacteria can cause fever, eye disorders, or infections of the liver, spleen or bones.
Some may also develop brain damage or inflammation of the spinal cord.
People with a suppressed immune system, such as those with HIV, may develop endocarditis, which is an infection of the inner lining of the heart’s chambers and valves.
Short-term illnesses in healthy people usually resolve without treatment.
However, antibiotics may be required if the infection affects the central nervous system.
Source: Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Mrs Altoft was prescribed the antibiotic rifampin to ease her symptoms, however, she is still suffering nearly a decade on.
‘It’s difficult to say for sure if it’s because of the cat scratch, but I am definitely not the same,’ she said.
‘I work part-time now and can’t see a way of ever being able to go back to full time.
‘It was also a good year before my sight fully returned to normal.’
Mrs Altoft is speaking out to raise awareness of the danger ticks and fleas can cause to human health.
‘The difficulty is Bartonella is not very well understood, especially the long-term effects, so nobody really knows how it will affect me,’ she said.
Mrs Altoft, who is backing the University of Bristol’s Big Flea Project, added: ‘Most people see fleas as a bit of an irritation, but don’t realise 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.
‘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 the child could have been exposed to fleas carrying Bartonella.
A spokesperson from the pharma giant MSD, which is also part of the Big Flea Project, added: ‘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.’
The Big Flea Project aims to research fleas and tick, which are the most common parasites affecting dogs and cats. Find out more here.
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