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Many of us are aware that both humans and dogs can get Lyme disease, but can cats get Lyme disease? Lyme disease in cats can occur, although it's rare. Read on to learn more about how this tick-transmitted disease impacts our feline companions as well as the clinical signs that your cat may have it.
Lyme Disease: An Overview
Lyme disease is caused by the spiral-shaped bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, and it's transmitted via an infected tick. Once a person or animal becomes infected, the bacteria travel through the bloodstream to multiple locations, such as the joints, kidneys and the heart, leading to health issues further down the line.
While it was once thought that only the deer tick transmitted Lyme disease, entomologists have since discovered that several species of common ticks may be involved in the disease's transmission.
Can Cats Get Lyme Disease?
For one reason or another, your favorite kitty is not a tick's first choice for a meal. However, this doesn't make cats exempt from tick bites. Although the tick that most often carries the disease-causing bacteria prefers wildlife such as voles, mice and deer, it's content sampling the blood of our household kitties — and even your own. Luckily, ticks don't hop and are slow-moving crawlers, making them much easier to avoid than pesky insects like mosquitoes or fleas.
According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have shown that ticks infected with the Lyme disease-causing bacteria only transmit the bacteria after the tick has been attached and has fed on the host animal for 36 to 48 hours. Because of this, you can reduce your cat's chance catching Lyme disease by examining them daily, especially during tick season.
If you do spot a tick, it should be removed promptly. Beware that ticks can transmit the disease to humans, so avoid touching them with your bare hands. Wear disposable gloves when removing a tick and wash your hands afterward. Contrary to popular belief, you can't get Lyme disease if your cat (or dog) has it. Another myth is that your cat can get Lyme disease from eating mice; there's no truth to this.
Clinical Signs of Lyme Disease in Cats
According to Merck Veterinary Manual, cats often won't show any physical signs of the illness, even if they're infected with it. For cats that do experience physical signs, the most common include:
- Decreased or loss of appetite
- Unwillingness to jump to heights or perches they normally favor
- Panting or difficulty breathing
Should you notice any of these signs during tick season, you should seek veterinary attention. If your veterinarian diagnoses your cat with Lyme disease, treatment will involve an oral antibiotic to clear the bacterium from your cat's system. Because Lyme disease can also affect the kidneys, joints, nervous system and heart, your vet will also closely evaluate these organ systems and ensure no targeted treatment is needed.
Can Cats Get Lyme Disease Tests?
Testing for Lyme disease can be problematic when it comes to accuracy. Widely available tests look for antibodies to indicate exposure to the bacterium. Two tests taken two to three weeks apart are needed to determine whether the antibody levels are increasing. Furthermore, a positive antibody test doesn't always indicate clinical disease; it may only mean your cat was exposed to the bacteria. On top of that, when cats test positive it is most commonly a "false positive", meaning their blood reacted with the components of the test in a way that caused a positive color change without the presence of true antibodies to Lyme Disease that should cause a positive test result.
To avoid delving into the intricacies of immunology, a blood test called a Western blot is available to let you know if your cat has Lyme disease or just has antibodies from being exposed to it. This blood test isn't widely available and is somewhat costly. For this reason, vets typically try to rule out other diseases first, such as kidney disease, heart disease or joint disease.
According to Dr. William Miller Jr., a professor of dermatology at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, studies indicate that cats can successfully recover from Lyme disease when treated promptly. Treatment is relatively affordable and straightforward for cats that receive oral medications. If the disease process has occurred for a longer period, treatment can be lengthy, lasting weeks to months. Chronic cases can cause irreversible damage to organs, making it essential to seek veterinary care if you suspect your cat is at risk or exposed to Lyme disease.
Prevention: Are There Lyme Disease Vaccines for Cats?
Although vets diagnose Lyme disease daily in dogs, it doesn't commonly ail cats. Because of how rarely it's seen, there's no vaccine available to protect our feline friends against Lyme disease. The best prevention is to protect your cat against ticks, especially during tick season.
While Lyme disease doesn't need to top your list of worries about your kitty's health, it's wise to be in-the-know about this tick-transmitted bacterial disease, should your kitty ever have a run-in with it.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible, is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert. She works as the VP of Veterinary Medicine at rhapsody.vet and lives in sunny Florida with her young son, the world's largest standard poodle, and two toilet-trained cats.