Lyme Disease in Cats: Signs and Diagnosis
Lyme disease is an illness that is caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. This type of bacteria is called a spirochete because of its spiral shape when viewed using a microscope. Humans can suffer from Lyme Disease as can cattle and dogs. It is also possible for cats to get it but it is more unusual in felines. For this reason, many owners are unaware of it and it can get missed. To make sure you don’t make that mistake, here’s all the information you need to know to keep your kitty safe.
Five Facts About Lyme Disease For Cat Owners
Here are some basic facts about Lyme Disease that cat Moms and Dads should know about.
- Lyme disease is transmitted by ticks
Lyme disease is transmitted from one person to another or from one animal to another by certain types of ticks. In the US, it is mainly the deer tick that spreads the disease but on the West Coast it is the Western black-legged tick. These are very small creatures that look a bit like a sesame seed that is attached firmly to the skin; they vary in color. Ticks live by feeding on the blood of a host animal. They have sharp mouthparts that pierce blood vessels so that they can feed on the blood. For example, if a tick lands on an infected dog and feeds on that dog’s blood, it will pick up the bacteria. If that tick later lands on your cat and starts to feed on their blood, they will transmit the bacteria to your cat.
- Lyme disease in common in the US
In the US, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in people and dogs. A vector-transmitted disease is one that is spread by insects such as ticks. It is found most often on the Pacific coast, the Midwest and the Atlantic coast states and these are called ‘endemic’ regions. Research has shown that around 75% of dogs living in these areas are exposed to infected ticks. Presumably, the figures are similar for cats who like to spend time where ticks are found. This is areas of long grass and woodland.
- Tick bites do not always cause Lyme Disease
It is important to note that not all ticks are infected with Lyme Disease. Even if an animal is bitten by an infected tick, they will not necessarily get the disease. Also, ticks do not hop onto your cat as fleas do. They perch on the tips of grasses where they can sense the arrival of an animal from vibrations and the body heat. When your cat or dog brushes past the grass, the tick will attach itself to the host.
- Lyme disease is rare in cats
It is very unlikely that your cat will ever get Lyme Disease. It is much more common in dogs and humans can also get it. There are no recorded infections in house cats in the US and the only recent cases have been in laboratory cats. This is not one of the feline infections that you should be constantly worrying about. It is not possible to vaccinate your cat against Lyme Disease so sensible precautions are your only option.
- There are precautions that you can take
If you live in an area where Lyme Disease is common, there are precautions that you can take. When a tick attaches itself to your cat, it will start to transmit the disease in 36 to 48 hours. You can spot ticks if you brush your cat when they come into the house. If you spot a tick, remove it using a pair of tweezers and make sure that no mouth parts have been left in your cat’s body. This significantly reduces the chances of Lyme disease being transmitted. Remember that the tick also presents a risk to your own health so wear gloves and sterilize your hands afterwards.
Signs Of Lyme Disease In Cats
The most important point here is that Lyme disease is very rare in cats. If you also own dogs, they are much more likely to get it and you are more likely to get it yourself. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that your cat could get it so you should know what the signs are.
Lyme Disease is always transmitted by ticks so the time to be extra vigilant is after you have discovered a tick on your cat’s body. They are about the size of a sesame seed and they are firmly attached to the skin. You can do a lot to prevent ticks from attaching themselves to your cat’s skin by using a suitable flea and tick medication. Your vet can help you to identify the best preparation for your cat.
If your cat is going to develop Lyme Disease, it will take some time for the bacteria to exert an effect in their body. You are likely to see signs of illness around four weeks after the tick bite. The most likely symptoms are:
- Lameness or limping caused by an inflammation of the joints
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Difficulty breathing
- Appetite loss
- Stiff and swollen joints and muscles
If you notice any of these symptoms, it is vital that you take your cat to the vet immediately. Lyme disease can cause very serious complications including kidney failure, cardiac conditions, neurological dysfunction (nervous system diseases) and joint damage.
Diagnosis Of Lyme Disease In Cats
Only a qualified vet can make a diagnosis of Lyme Disease so get your cat there right away. Carefully describe the symptoms that your cat had and if you have spotted a tick on them within the last few weeks. Show them where the tick bite was. Even if you did not notice a tick on your cat, your vet may ask about your cat’s outdoor activity.
Your vet will start by carrying out a physical examination of your cat to look for the physical signs of the disease. There are also a number of tests that your vet can carry out.
- Blood tests
These are the most popular diagnostic test for Lyme Disease. The blood will be examined for the presence of antibodies to B. burgdorferi bacteria. However, their presence is not enough to make a diagnosis. When cats are exposed to B. burgdorferi, their bodies produce antibodies but they may not get any physical symptoms. Then, a few months or years later, they could have a blood test and those antibodies will still be there. Therefore, if the antibodies are found, it means that your cat has been exposed to the bacteria at some point but it is not necessarily the pathogen that is causing their current illness. They need some further fairly complicated blood analysis to confirm this.
- Urine tests
As animals cannot talk to vets and tell them how they are feeling, vets often have to use a process of elimination. The symptoms of kidney disease can be quite similar to the signs of Lyme Disease. Therefore, your vet may take a sample of your cat’s urine to test to see if their kidneys are working properly. To make things even more complicated, Lyme Disease can also cause kidney problems.
A cat with Lyme Disease may go lame and have difficulties walking. A vet would normally want to carry out some x-rays to rule out another condition of the joints such as arthritis. If your cat has arthritic joints, it will show up as degeneration on the x-rays.
Joint fluid sampling. This may be carried out to check if any of the more serious complications of Lyme Disease have developed. These include joint issues.
Treatment and Recovery In Cats
The whole point of making a diagnosis of Lyme Disease is to decide on the most appropriate treatment.
For a disease such as Lyme Disease, antibiotics will be the treatment of choice. Medical research has shown that cats who are promptly treated with antibiotics are very likely to make a good recovery with no long-term health issues. However, if the diagnosis and treatment are delayed, it will take longer for the antibiotics to work. The pathogen has a longer period of time to cause damage to tissues and organs. They are likely to need prolonged treatment and more intense veterinary care. If the infection remains untreated for several weeks, it can cause permanent damage to your cat’s body. You may be asked to give your cat the antibiotics at home and it is vital that they finish the course. If you are struggling to give the medication to your cat, don’t just give up. Always talk to your vet and get some support.
Provided that your cat has received prompt treatment, they should make a good recovery. However, for a cat with tissue damage, recovery is going to be much harder. You may need to take extra care of your kitty for a while.
- Lyme Disease in Cats – Pets MD
- Lyme Disease: A Potential, But Unlikely, Problem for Cats – Cornell Feline Health Center