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Fatal Tick-Borne Disease on the Rise in 17 US States

cytauxzoonosis in cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Tick-borne illness is more common in dogs than cats, but cats do occasionally acquire tick-related diseases
  • One deadly tick-borne disease that is seen only in felines and is on the rise is cytauxzoonosis, which has now been confirmed in domestic cats in 17 U.S. states in the midwest and southeast
  • The first signs of infection include fever, lethargy and loss of appetite, which will be followed quickly by more serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing and jaundice
  • Cytauxzoonosis is often fatal, however, prompt treatment with a specific drug protocol and supportive care will give your pet the best chance for survival
  • Since the disease is so often fatal, it’s best to keep cats in tick endemic areas indoors, at least during tick season; cats who go outside should be carefully supervised and checked for ticks daily

By Dr. Becker

When people think about the problem of ticks and pets, they're more often concerned about tick-borne illnesses in dogs; however, ticks can and do latch onto kitties as well and transmit disease. Ticks attach to live animals because they need to ingest blood to survive and develop from larvae to adulthood. Larvae need blood to become nymphs; nymphs need blood to mature into adulthood; and adult female ticks need blood in order to mate and lay eggs.

Ticks in the nymph or adult stage pose the greatest risk for pets. Given the chance, the tick will attach to your cat's body and begin feeding on her blood. If the tick also happens to be carrying an infectious agent, it will be transmitted to your kitty, enter the circulatory system and begin to rapidly reproduce.

Now for some good news: Most ticks don't carry disease and most cats never acquire a tick-borne disease. In addition, kitties are very aware of even the tiniest pests on their bodies, and often will remove a tick before it has a chance to attach.

However, since occasionally veterinarians do see tick-borne illnesses in feline patients, it's a good idea for cat parents to be alert and aware. According to feline specialist Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, writing for veterinary journal dvm360, one tick-related disease that is on the increase in cats is cytauxzoonosis.1

Cytauxzoonosis is a disease resulting from the bite of a tick infected with the blood parasite Cytauxzoon felis. Bobcats are the primary hosts of C. felis, thus the nickname "bobcat fever," and when a tick feeds on an infected bobcat, it acquires the parasite.

If the infected tick then attaches to your cat, the pathogen can be transmitted to your kitty. The ticks most likely to carry the infection are the lone star tick and the American dog tick. All cats are considered susceptible to cytauxzoonosis, but interestingly, the infection has never been reported in any other species.

Cytauxzoonosis Is One of the Worst Tick-Borne Diseases Your Cat Can Get

In bobcats, cytauxzoonosis seems to cause only short-term illness, however, the animals do become "persistent carriers" of the disease. In domestic cats, the infection leads to severe illness and is often life-threatening. The C. felis parasite infects both the blood and tissues of cats. In a destructive process that takes about three weeks from the time of infection, the kitty will ultimately hemorrhage and die.

Infected ticks feed on the blood of bobcats, drop off, molt to their next life stage and attach to their next host. If the next host happens to be a domestic cat, a cytauxzoonosis infection can be the result. Fortunately, since the only way your cat can acquire cytauxzoonosis is through the bite of an infected tick that has fed on an infected bobcat, the disease is relatively rare.

The first reported case of cytauxzoonosis was in Missouri in 1976, but the geographic range has progressively expanded. As of this writing, cytauxzoonosis has been confirmed in domestic cats in 17 states, primarily in the midwest and southeast.

The pathogen has also been discovered in bobcats (but not yet in domestic kitties) in two additional states. Colleran recommends that veterinarians practicing in areas of the country where there are lone star ticks but no cytauxzoonosis reports yet, which includes much of the northeast and central U.S., be aware of the potential for the disease in feline patients.

Symptoms, Treatment and Prognosis

Cats who spend time outdoors in areas where the disease has been reported are obviously at greatest risk for acquiring the infection. Initial symptoms include:



Loss of appetite

Rapid breathing and heart rate

Within days the kitty will experience severe weakness, jaundice, difficulty breathing and neurologic problems. Sadly, the disease is often fatal, but if treatment is given early enough, some cats do pull through. Your veterinarian can diagnose the disease with blood smears and PCR testing.

A drug protocol that has shown to improve survival rates (to about 60 percent) involves combining an antifungal/antiparasitic and an antibiotic. Supportive care must also be given in the form of intravenous (IV) fluids and blood thinners. Some kitties also require a feeding tube.

Integrative vets also treat these patients with ozone therapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatments and natural antimicrobial defense herbs (used in human tick borne infections). It's important to know that cats who recover from cytauxzoonosis may still carry the parasite and can suffer a recurrence of the infection.

Preventing Cytauxzoonosis in Your Cat

Fortunately, while cats who recover from the disease can continue to transmit the pathogen to ticks that attach to their bodies, the infection cannot be spread through physical contact with an infected cat. Since cytauxzoonosis (and any tick-borne illness) has the potential to be fatal, I recommend not exposing your cat to ticks to the best of your ability. This can be accomplished by keeping him inside, and if he goes outside, it should be under your direct supervision.

If you do allow your cat outside, it should be for a walk with you on a harness and leash, or in a safe outdoor enclosure that he can't get out of, and other animals can't get into. During the warm summer months, it's important to brush your cat's coat regularly, at least daily if he's outside everyday, and search for ticks that might have attached to his body.

If you discover a tick attached to your cat, you need to remove it with tweezers or a specially designed tick removal tool. I also recommend wearing gloves to prevent touching the tick directly, and washing your hands afterwards. It's important that you remove the entire tick, including the head, by applying steady pressure as you pull it out. Once it's off, flush it down the toilet.

Then disinfect your cat's skin with soapy water or diluted povidone iodine (Betadine). I also recommend applying a drop of colloidal silver to the bite. Monitor the attachment site for the next few days. If you notice any irritation or inflammation of the skin, contact your veterinarian.

I'm not in favor of applying topical chemical flea and tick preventives or collars containing potentially toxic chemicals to any pet, but especially not cats due to their extreme sensitivity to many of these substances. And never, ever use a flea and tick product designed for dogs on your cat, as it can be fatal.

If your cat ventures outside regularly, especially if you live in an area where lone star or American dog ticks are prevalent, putting an all-natural, non-toxic, herbal pest repellent collar on him can provide an extra layer of protection. You can also consider sprinkling him with diatomaceous earth, avoiding the face and head.

+ Sources and References