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This case series describes three patients with a simi-
lar clinical picture: unilateral abrupt visual loss, op-
tic nerve edema, and a macular star exudate. In all
cases we found significant antibody titers to Bar-
tonella henselae , the causative agent of cat scratch
disease. Cat scratch disease seems to be the most
common cause of stellate neuroretinitis, formerly
known as Leber’s idiopathic stellate retinopathy. A
review of the pertinent literature shows that sero-
logic evidence of B. henselae is sufficient to con-
firm the diagnosis given the low incidence of signi-
ficant titers in the general population. Cat scratch
disease is usually a self limiting disorder in immu-
nocompetent patients, but treatment with doxycy-
cline is recommended.
valence dans la population générale. La maladie des
griffes du chat connait une évolution bénigne chez
les patients immunocompétents. Néanmoins, une
cure d’antibiotiques sous forme de doxycycline est
Cat scratch disease- neuroretinitis- B.
henselae - Leber’s stellate retinopathy-
macular star
Maladie des griffes du chat- neurorétinite- B.
henselae- rétinite stellaire pseudo-
néphritique de Leber- exsudat maculaire en
Nous décrivons une série de trois patients qui pré-
sentent un tableau clinique similaire: une perte bru-
tale de l’acuité visuelle dans un oeil, un oedème pa-
pillaire et des exsudats en étoile autour de la macu-
la. Chez ces trois patients la sérologie met en évi-
dence un taux élevé d’anticorps contre Bartonella
henselae , l’agent étiologique de la maladie des grif-
fes du chat. La maladie des griffes du chat semble
être la cause la plus fréquente de la neurorétinite
stellaire, connue sous le nom de rétinite stellaire
pseudonéphritique de Leber dans l’ancienne littéra-
ture. Une revue de la littérature apprend que la sé-
ropositivité pour B. henselae suffit en général pour
affirmer le diagnostic, étant donné la faible séropré-
* Department of Ophthalmology, University Hospital
Ghent, Belgium
received: 25.07.02
accepted: 28.09.02
Bull. Soc. belge Ophtalmol., 286 , 41-46, 2002.
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Cat scratch disease (CSD) is a subacute, self-
limiting infection caused by the gram-negative
bacillus Bartonella henselae (figure 1). Most
patients develop a mild to moderately severe
flu-like illness associated with regional lym-
phadenopathy. Ocular involvement occurs in
only 5% to 10% of patients with CSD and in-
cludes Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome,
neuroretinitis, and focal retinochoroiditis. A re-
view of the literature indicates a prevalence of
neuroretinitis in documented CSD between 1
and 2% (6,20), although one series reported a
prevalence as high as 26% (24). Encephalitis,
osteomyelitis, and hepatosplenic disease are
rare complications of CSD.
We report 3 cases of neuroretinitis with a posi-
tive serology for B. henselae .
Fig 1 . Gram-negative bacilli Bartonella henselae in a vis-
ceral lymph node.Photograph taken by Dr. C. Van Den
Broecke, Department of Anatomopathology, University Hos-
pital Ghent.
Case 1
A 50-year old caucasian woman presented with
sudden visual loss in the left eye. She reported
a febrile illness with mild headaches and my-
algia, 2 weeks prior to the visual loss. She owned
a hostel for lost animals.
Physical examination revealed an erythema-
tous papule at the left hand and a tender lymph
node in the left elbow.
Best corrected visual acuity was 20/20 in the
right eye and 20/70 in the left eye. Biomicros-
copy was unremarkable in both eyes. She had
a left relative afferent pupillary defect. Fundus
examination of the right eye revealed no par-
ticularities. Examination of the left eye showed
disc edema, especially in the superior segment,
with minimal macular edema (fig. 2a). Visual
field testing revealed a mild left central scoto-
ma. She was not given treatment initially and
on examination 4 days later the visual acuity
in her left eye had improved to 20/30. Oph-
thalmoscopy of the left eye now showed disc
edema surrounded by flame-shaped hemor-
rhages and a macular star pattern of lipid exu-
dates. Additionally, there was a white retinal fo-
cus superotemporal to the fovea (Fig. 2b).
Fig 2a . Severe disc edema with minimal macular edema
and a retinal focus superotemporal to the fovea.
Fig 2b. Disc edema with flame-shaped hemorrhages, ma-
cular star exudates and a retinal focus superotemporal to
the fovea.
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Fig 3. Staining of the optic disc and the superotemporal
focus on fluorescein angiography.
Fig 4 . Disc edema with flame-shaped hemorrhages, ve-
nous dilation and macular star exudates. Note the retinal
focus superotemporal to the disc.
Fluorescein angiography of the left eye de-
monstrated staining of the optic disc (especially
superiorly) and of the superotemporal focus
(Fig. 3). Color vision, contrastsensitivity and
electroretinography of both eyes were within
normal limits. Visually evoked potentials of the
left eye showed slightly increased latencies.
Several basic investigations were all found to
be normal: a complete blood examination, chest
X-ray, abdominal ultrasound, angiotensin-con-
verting enzyme level, neurological examina-
tion including lumbar puncture and neuroim-
aging. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate was
slightly elevated. Serologic tests for Lyme dis-
ease, syphilis and toxoplasmosis were nega-
tive. Serological indirect immunofluorescence
tests detected antibodies to B. henselae at a
dilution of 1/256, confirming the diagnosis of
neuroretinitis caused by CSD. She was treated
with oral ciprofloxacin 1g/day for 2 weeks.
Follow-up 2 months later showed complete res-
olution of the fundus lesions and recovery of the
visual acuity in the left eye to 20/20.
left eye was normal. Examination one week lat-
er showed a similar clinical picture with mac-
ular star exudates (Fig. 4). A general examina-
tion revealed no scratch or papule, nor any lym-
phadenopathy. Basic investigations including a
complete blood examination, chest X-ray, ab-
dominal ultrasound and neuroimaging showed
no abnormalities. Serology for B. henselae was
positive at a dilution of 1/512. The patient was
treated with doxycycline 100 mg/day for 6
weeks. At a follow-up visit one month later the
fundus findings were essentially unchanged but
the visual acuity in the right eye was restored
to 20/20.
Case 3
A 42-year old caucasian man complained of
sudden blurred vision in the right eye. He men-
tioned a recent episode of malaise and had a
cat at home.
Visual acuity was counting fingers in the right
eye and 20/20 in the left eye. No afferent pu-
pillary defect was detected. Slit-lamp exami-
nation revealed no inflammation. Fundus ex-
amination of the right eye showed disc edema
with a focal lesion temporal to the disc and a
peripapillary serous retinal detachment (Fig. 5).
Examination of the left eye was normal.
Fluorescein angiography demonstrated late leak-
age from the optic nerve and the temporal fo-
cus. Serologic testing was negative for Lyme
disease and toxoplasmosis. Bartonella IgM ti-
ters were positive at a dilution of 1/128. The
patient was treated with doxycycline 100mg/
day for two weeks. Follow-up 1 month later
Case 2
An 18-year old caucasian man was referred to
our department for sudden visual loss in the
right eye. He reported no viral prodrome and
had no cats. Best corrected visual acuity was
20/70 in the right eye and 20/20 in the left eye.
Biomicroscopy was unremarkable in both eyes.
An afferent pupillary defect was present in the
right eye. Fundus examination of the right eye
revealed disc edema surrounded by retinal he-
morrhages, venous dilation and a focal lesion
superotemporal to the disc. The fundus of the
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Fig 5 . Disc edema, peripapillary serous retinal detach-
ment and a macular star. Note again the retinal focus tem-
poral to the disc.-
id fly and ticks are potential vectors in the trans-
mission of the Bartonella species (10).
B. henselae seropositivity in cats varies de-
pending on the geographic region and the cli-
mate conditions (15). The frequency of infec-
tion in cats seems to be higher in regions with
more fleas (7).
Typically, a scratch by a cat, especially a kit-
ten, is followed after a variable incubation pe-
riod of three to ten days by unilateral regional
lymphadenopathy. An erythematous papule or
pustule may be present at the site of inocula-
tion. The infection may be asymptomatic or
cause a systemic illness with fever, malaise,
night sweats and painful regional lymphadeno-
pathy. Occasionally CSD may cause a more se-
vere picture with involvement of the central and
peripheral nervous system, liver, spleen, lung,
bone, skin and eye (18).
The eye is the most commonly affected non-
lymphatic organ and many ophthalmic mani-
festations of CSD have been reported: neurore-
tinitis, chorioretinitis, serous detachment of the
macula, optic neuritis, anterior and posterior
uveitis and Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome
(2). The most common association appears to
be the oculoglandular syndrome of Parinaud,
affecting approximately 5% of symptomatic
patients and characterized by fever, granulo-
matous conjunctivitis and regional lymphade-
nopathy (2).
Neuroretinitis, formerly known as Leber’s (id-
iopathic) stellate retinopathy, is characterized
by unilateral acute visual loss, optic disc ede-
ma, lipid exudation in the macula arranged in
a star configuration and one or more foci of
chorioretinitis (8).
Gass demonstrated in 1977 that the tissue pri-
mary involved appears to be the optic nerve
head vasculature. Abnormal permeability of the
small capillaries on the optic nerve results in
leakage of lipid-rich exudate in the subretinal
space. He hypothesized that the macular star
is due to reabsorption of the serous compo-
nent of this exudate leaving lipid precipitates
in the outer plexiform layer of the macular re-
gion. These observations led him to the con-
clusion that this clinical entity should prefer-
entially be called neuroretinitis rather than a re-
tinopathy or a maculopathy (5).
Neuroretinitis secondary to CSD is typically uni-
lateral, although bilateral cases have been de-
showed formation of a macular star with re-
gression of the disc edema and the temporal
focus. Two months after the initial visit the vi-
sual acuity of the right eye had improved to 20/
20. The macular star, still present at that time,
faded away over the next month.
CSD is a self-limited infectious disease that pri-
marily affects the lymphatic system. It appears
to affect patients of any age with a higher pre-
valence among youngsters and without a pre-
dilection for either sex. Domestic cats are a ma-
jor reservoir for B. henselae , the causative agent
of CSD. This agent was first described by Wear
and coworkers in 1983 (22). They identified a
pleomorphic gram-negative bacillus in a lymph
node from a patient with CSD using the Whar-
tin-Starry silver method. In 1990 Relman and
coworkers identified a new pathogen as a cause
of bacteremia, bacillary angiomatosis and ba-
cillary splenitis: Rochalimaea henselae (13).
This previously unknown organism was close-
ly related to the causative agent of trench fe-
ver, at that time named Rochalimaea quin-
tana and it was suggested that it be named
Rochalimaea henselae (16,23).
Brenner and coworkers revealed that the Roch-
alimaea henselae species were closely related
to Bartonella bacilliformis , the agent of oroya
fever and verruga peruana in Peru and Ecua-
dor (1). A new reclassification in 1993 changed
the genus Rochalimaea henselae in the Bar-
tonella species. Studies suggested that not only
fleas, but also the human body louse, the sar-
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scribed (21). Generally, patients present with
abrupt unilateral visual loss. Most patients have
features of optic neuropathy.
Anterior chamber cells and flare may be present
and posterior vitreous cells are common. All pa-
tients have optic edema and a peripapillary se-
rous detachment. Nerve fiber layer splinter he-
morrhages are ocasionally seen. After 1 to 2
weeks when the serous fluid resolves, a mac-
ular star begins to precipitate. These lipid exu-
dates disappear after a few to several months
and may leave retinal epithelial pigment de-
fects behind.
Foci of retinitis or choroiditis have been de-
scribed (17). They can be multiple or isolated.
Our three patients presented with an isolated
focus in association with disc edema and a ma-
cular star. In two cases the focus appeared peri-
papillary. Complications of focal chorioretinitis
include branch retinal artery (3,17) and vein
occlusions (3), and localized serous detach-
ment (25).
Several other infectious diseases may produce
a similar clinical picture and should be ruled
out: syphilis, Lime disease, leptospirosis, toxo-
plasmosis, toxocariosis and tuberculosis.
The diagnosis of CSD is confirmed by a posi-
tive serology of the causative agent.
In 1992 Regnery and coworkers introduced in-
direct fluorescent antibody testing for Bartonel-
la henselae with 88% sensitivity and 96% spec-
ificity. They also established a 3% incidence of
significant titers against B. henselae in the
healthy population (12).
Different test assays [immunofluorescent as-
says (IFA), immunoblot] have been used for the
serodiagnosis of CSD. The sensitivity and spe-
cificity varies according to which test has been
used. IFA seems to be the most popular and
reliable test (14). The highest antibody titers
seem to be detected in weeks 0-16 after the
onset of the lymphadenopathy (26).
However, IgG antibodies may occasionally be
low or even negative in the early stage of the
disease (4). In such case, a second serum spe-
cimen must confirm the diagnosis. A serocon-
version, a high titer of _ 1: 512 or a fourfold
increase in a second sample is indicative of CSD
It is at present unclear which proportion of all
cases with neuroretinitis is due to CSD. In 1999
Suhler and coworkers attempted to determine
the percentage of neuroretinitis caused by CSD,
based upon a positive serology. They found a
seropositivity for Bartonella henselae in 65.3%
of tested patients with neuroretinitis (19). This
result is much higher than the 3% incidence in
the general population, found by Regnery and
coworkers, implying that CSD is one, if not the
single most important cause of neuroretinitis.
The optimal treatment for CSD is unknown due
to a lack of adequate clinical trials. B. hense-
lae seems to be sensitive in vitro to a number
of antibiotics: erythromycin, doxycycline, cipro-
floxacin, rifampicin and trimethoprim-sul-
famethoxazole. Doxycycline (100mg orally twice
daily) is preferred: it has better ocular and cen-
tral nervous system penetration. It is usually
given 2 to 4 weeks in immunocompetent pa-
tients and 4 months in immunocompromised
patients (9). The benefit of antibiotic therapy
in immunocompetent patients with CSD has
never been demonstrated and before the iden-
tification of B. henselae , most immunocompe-
tent patients tended to do well without any treat-
Summarizing these data, B. henselae is the pri-
mary cause of neuroretinitis. The diagnosis
should be based upon clinical findings and con-
firmed by a positive serology for B. henselae .
B. henselae -associated ocular complications
are usually self-limiting but may be treated with
Proposals to uni-
fy the genera Bartonella and Rochalimaea, with
descriptions of Bartonella quintana comb. nov.,
Bartonella vinsonii comb. nov., Bartonella hen-
selae comb. nov., and Bartonella elizabethiae
comb. nov., and to remove the family Barto-
nellaceae from the order Rickettsiales. Int J
System Bacteriol 1993; 43:777-786.
(2) CARITHERS H.A. Cat scratch disease: an
overview based on a study of 1200 patients.
Am J Dis Child 1985; 139:1124-1133.
Branch retinal arterial occlusions in multifo-
cal retinitis with optic nerve edema. Arch Oph-
thalmol 1995; 113:1271-1276.
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