Learn about the prevalence of Lyme disease in cats and how to practice effective prevention strategies.
Lyme disease, the tick-borne infection caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, is not just a problem for the 476,000 humans who are diagnosed with it in the United States each year. Domestic animals can also get infected with Lyme borreliosis through the bite of a black-legged tick (also known as Ixodes scapularis, or a deer tick). And while it’s much more common for a dog to get this bacterial infection (see “Lyme Disease in Dogs: Dog Lyme Disease Life Expectancy”), it is possible for a cat to get Lyme disease. Let’s go through how to spot it, what the clinical signs are, and how to treat Lyme disease in cats, so you can keep your pet safe!
How Common is Lyme Disease in Cats?
While cats can often get exposed to Lyme disease, it is very rare that they contract the bacteria and get sick. In fact, Lyme disease in cats has not been documented outside of a laboratory setting. You shouldn’t be worried about your cat getting Lyme disease in the same way you should worry about your dog or yourself, but it’s still good to know what signs and symptoms to look for and how to take care of it if your cat should get Lyme.
Causes of Lyme Disease in Cats
Lyme disease is caused by the bite of an infected black-legged tick. The tick needs to be carrying the pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi and needs to be attached to a cat for one to two days in order for the bacteria to be transmitted. Tick exposure is more likely if you live in tick-infested areas. Ticks like moist, shady areas like tall grass, wooded areas and perimeters where the lawn meets the woods, shrubs and bushy areas, stone walls, wood piles, and leaf litter. Tick season is generally during warm weather in the spring and summer months, but they are out and biting any time the temperature is above freezing.
If your feline friend is an outdoor cat, it is more likely to come in contact with a tick, but indoor cats can also be exposed. You or your dog could bring a tick inside the house that could then jump onto your cat. Even if your dog is vaccinated against Lyme disease, it’s still important to check the dog for ticks so that one doesn’t bite you or your cat.
What are the Early Symptoms for Lyme Disease in Cats?
Because ticks are so small, you might not know if your cat gets a tick bite. Some humans get a “bullseye” (erythema migrans) rash with Lyme disease, but this is not common in dogs or cats. Therefore, it’s especially important that you watch for early symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty breathing
If your cat shows any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian right away.
In the Late Stages of Lyme Disease, What Can Be Affected?
If Lyme disease is not detected and treated right away, the bacteria can move to different parts of the cat’s body, affecting the kidneys, joints, nervous system, and heart. Your cat may experience joint pain, kidney problems or even kidney failure, with symptoms like vomiting, weight loss, and swelling in the limbs.
How is Lyme Disease Diagnosed in Cats?
Lyme disease in cats can be diagnosed through laboratory tests like blood tests. Additional tests can help rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms. Your veterinarian should also consider the cat’s symptoms when making a clinical diagnosis.
How Is Feline Lyme Disease Treated?
Feline Lyme disease is usually treated with the antibiotic doxycycline for about 30 days, though your cat may need longer antibiotic therapy. Your veterinarian may prescribe a different antibiotic if your cat is not able to tolerate doxycycline. Most cats show signs of improvement within a day or two of starting antibiotics. Depending on your cat’s symptoms, your veterinarian might also prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or other pain relievers, kidney medication, IV fluid, or anti-nausea medication. They also might change your cat’s diet.
Cats that are diagnosed with Lyme disease and given antibiotic treatment right away have a good chance of a full recovery. If Lyme disease isn’t caught immediately and spreads to a late-stage infection, it can take much longer and be much more difficult to treat. Untreated feline Lyme disease can lead to kidney failure and irreversible tissue damage.
How Can I Prevent My Cat from Getting Lyme Disease?
Tick prevention is the best way to keep your cat safe from Lyme disease. Preventative measures include keeping your cat out of areas where ticks like to live and using insect repellent to help protect your cat. There are sprays and “spot-on” treatments that work well, but they must be used consistently (for example, many “spot-on” products need to be applied monthly). While there is a Lyme vaccine for dogs, unfortunately there isn’t one for cats. Talk to your veterinarian about the best repellent product for your cat.
In addition to keeping your cat out of tick-infected areas and treating with repellent, it’s also important to check your cat for ticks just like you’d check yourself or your dog. Check the cat’s full body and fur, remembering to look in hard-to-spot places like in and behind the ears, under the collar, and under the tail. If you find a tick, remove it right away just as you would from a human or a dog, using tweezers or a tick removal tool to grasp the tick at the bite site and pull straight up. Be sure to wear gloves, and do not touch the tick with your bare hands—you don’t want to accidentally get bitten while you’re removing the tick!
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The above material is provided for information purposes only. The material (a) is not nor should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor (b) does it necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of Global Lyme Alliance, Inc. or any of its directors, officers, advisors or volunteers. Advice on the testing, treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.