At one time or another, you may have heard that ticks don’t bother cats. As any feline stalking through the brush in warm weather will tell you (or would if they could), that is a myth. So, can cats get lyme disease? It turns out that lyme disease in cats is uncommon, but not inconceivable—and it can be quite serious. Learn why your cat might be at risk, which symptoms you should watch out for, and tips for prevention.
What is lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria spirochete species of the Borrelia burgdorferi group and is one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases in the world. The bacteria enters through the bite of a young tick (nymph) or an adult female tick. Infection typically occurs in cats after the tick has been attached for at least 18 hours.
When is tick season?
Tick season is generally considered to last from April to September, although ticks can be active any time of the year when the temperature is above freezing. In most parts of the U.S., lyme disease is transmitted by the black-legged tick, otherwise known as the deer tick. On the West Coast, the infection is carried by a similar parasite, the Western black-legged tick.
Symptoms of lyme disease in cats
Cats often do not exhibit any symptoms of lyme disease. When they do, the most common symptom to surface is lameness of the limbs due to inflammation of the joints. Lameness may be recurrent and acute, lasting for three to four days but resurfacing days or weeks later. This symptom can occur in one leg or “shift” from limb to limb.
In rare cases, symptoms associated with kidney problems occur. PetMD explains that if untreated, “it may lead to glomerulonephritis, which causes inflammation and accompanying dysfunction of the kidney’s glomeruli (essentially, a blood filter). Eventually, total kidney failure sets in and the cat begins to exhibit such signs as vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, weight loss, increased urination and thirst, fluid buildup in the abdomen and fluid buildup in the tissues, especially the legs and under the skin.”
Lyme disease in cats may also manifest as a stiff walk with an arched back, sensitivity to touch, difficulty breathing, fever, lack of appetite, depression, swollen lymph nodes close to the site of the infecting tick bite, and, rarely, heart abnormalities and nervous system complications.
Diagnosis and treatment
If you notice any of these symptoms in your cat during tick season, take him to a veterinarian for a complete blood profile, urinalysis, and other tests. The vet will look for the presence of bacteria, parasites, and fungi in the bloodstream, and may draw fluid from the affected joints for analysis.
Unless your cat’s condition is severe, the vet will likely have you administer an antibiotics treatment over the course of four weeks. You’ll need to keep your cat warm and dry, and limit his activity until symptoms have cleared up.
When treated promptly, cats with lyme disease usually make a full recovery. In some cases, though, symptoms do not completely resolve—long-term joint pain may continue even after the disease has been eradicated.
Preventing lyme disease in cats
The easiest way to prevent lyme disease in cats is to keep your cat indoors. If he goes outside, don’t allow him to roam tick-infested areas (grassy, brushy, or wooded areas) during tick season.
Groom your cat daily so you can spot ticks right away. If you notice a tick on your cat, you can remove it by hand. Put on a pair of gloves, grasp the tick firmly near the head where it is attached to your cat’s skin, and pull it gently but steadily backwards away from the skin. Then place the tick in a container of alcohol to kill it—do not crush the tick between your fingers!
Your vet can also recommend a variety of sprays, collars, and spot-on topical products to kill and repel ticks. Don’t administer these products without vet supervision, as they can be dangerous to cats if misused.
Tick paralysis in cats
It’s important to enforce tick prevention and control for more than just the threat of lyme disease. A tick bite can also lead to what’s known as tick paralysis, which occurs when a potent toxin is released into the cat’s bloodstream through the saliva of certain species of female tick. The toxin directly affects the nervous system and can cause lower motor neuron paralysis, or a loss of voluntary movement. Furthermore, a large infestation of ticks can cause a cat to become anemic.
While lyme disease in cats is uncommon, it’s best to take preventative measures against the possibility—especially if your cat goes outdoors. This tick season, keep your cat safe and bite-free!