Urgent Warning to Cat Owners in These Areas

bobcat fever

Story at-a-glance -

  • Veterinarians in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other southern states are warning cat parents about a deadly tick-borne disease that is seen only in felines — cytauxzoonosis, or bobcat fever
  • The first signs of clinical disease 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 protocol and supportive care will give your pet the best chance for survival
  • To keep your cat safe from this potentially deadly infection, keep her indoors if you live in a tick-endemic area, at least during tick season; kitties who go outside should be carefully supervised and checked for ticks daily

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Veterinarians are warning cat parents in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other southern states that they're seeing more cases of cytauxzoonosis, a disease that results from the bite of a tick infected with the blood parasite Cytauxzoon felis. Bobcats are the primary hosts of the C. felis parasite, which is why the disease is often called bobcat fever, however, it has also been found in other wild cats including the Florida bobcat, the eastern bobcat, the Texas cougar and a captive white tiger.1

"[Bobcat fever] is transmitted by the tick feeding on the bobcat and then it feeds on the domestic cat. It's usually fatal in the domestic cat," veterinarian Dr. Phil Chitwood of Poteau Valley Veterinary Hospital told 5 News KFSM.2 Fortunately, 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 will often remove a tick before it has a chance to attach.

However, if a tick feeds on an infected bobcat, acquires the parasite and then attaches to your cat, the pathogen can be transmitted to your kitty. Cats cannot catch the infection from another cat directly without being bitten by a tick. 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.

Bobcat Fever Can Be Deadly

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 sadly, is often fatal. The C. felis parasite infects both the blood and tissues, and 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.3

The pathogen has also been discovered in bobcats (but not yet in domestic kitties) in two additional states. 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., should be aware of the potential for the disease in feline patients.

Symptoms, Treatment and the Outlook for Cats With Cytauxzoonosis

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:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate

Within days the kitty will experience severe weakness, jaundice, difficulty breathing and neurologic problems. While the disease is often fatal, if treatment is given early enough, some cats do pull through, so if you live where ticks are prevalent and your kitty is showing signs of an infection, it's important to see your veterinarian right away.

Interestingly, there are documented cases of cats that acquire the disease but never showed clinical signs.4 Researchers aren't sure why some kitties become symptomatic while others don't. It could be that some cats are resistant to the infection; it's also possible there are different strains of C. felis and some are more virulent than others. Interestingly, cats in the same region of the U.S. or in the same household can have dramatically different responses to the infection.

Kitties who survive the infection become persistent carriers, but typically never again show signs of clinical illness.5 Bobcat fever is diagnosed 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.6 Supportive care must also be given in the form of intravenous (IV) fluids and blood thinners. Some kitties also require a feeding tube.

Integrative veterinarians also treat these patients with ozone therapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatments and natural antimicrobial defense herbs (used in human tick borne infections). Kitties who recover from cytauxzoonosis may still carry the parasite and can suffer a recurrence of the infection.

Keeping Your Cat Safe From Bobcat Fever

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, nontoxic, 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.