Before describing the symptoms of Lyme Disease and how it can affect your cat, it is important to list the areas of the UK where the ticks infected with Lyme borreliosis can be picked up by your animal (or you!). These currently include Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs and parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, Thetford Forest, the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors and the Scottish Highlands. Even within these areas, the causative tick is only likely to be present in areas where deer roam freely, as it needs to feed on deer to complete its life cycle. That said, it is obviously good practice to visit the vet if your cat is unwell, especially if you have previously discovered a tick on its body somewhere; the areas where ticks infected with the borrelia spirochete are increasing.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria from the borrelia strain. It is potentially serious, and was once considered to be virtually untreatable. Because it is often weeks or maybe months from the tick bite to the first symptoms becoming apparent, many people and pets are misdiagnosed as Lyme disease mimics so many other diseases. A skin rash appears on humans, like a target centred around the site of the tick bite (which may have gone unnoticed) but cats do not have the dermatological phase and so they are often quite ill before anything is noticed.
Most animals bitten by ticks never go on to develop any disease, because most ticks are either disease free or do not pass anything on. Of those which are bitten by a disease carrying tick, most do not go on to develop any disease and do not even become carriers, showing antibodies in the blood when tested. Some of these animals go on to develop Lyme disease but remain unaffected for life. A small minority will go on to develop Lyme disease with all of its symptoms, and unpleasant symptoms they are too.
Behavioural Symptoms of Lyme Disease in your Cat
The main problem with the symptoms of Lyme Disease is that they can be mistaken for other things so easily. The one ‘missing’ symptom which is a clincher in people with Lyme disease is the skin rash; it is not that the cat’s coat hides the rash – it simply does not feature in the symptoms in cats. Without this clear marker, it is important that the owner reacts quickly to any of the other symptoms, especially if they have recently removed a tick, or if they live in one of the affected areas.
Changes in Behaviour
Behavioural changes are probably the first that will be noticed. The cat will be intermittently lame, walking very carefully or keeping one leg off the floor. Its breathing may be difficult and it may become very lethargic and difficult to rouse. This may progress into loss of consciousness. No matter how many of these symptoms are present, it will certainly lose its appetite and may show dramatic weight loss. The problem with these kind of symptoms is that, cats being cats, the affected animal will probably take itself off somewhere quiet and you may not notice its increasing lethargy.
Physical Symptoms of Lyme Disease
In a perfect world, the cat will have shown some of the behavioural symptoms above before showing the physical ones, but it is a feature of Lyme disease that not all of the symptoms manifest at once, if at all. Hopefully, the vigilant owner will have noticed the cat’s distress and will have taken it off to the vet, but in a case where the lethargy and the rest have not shown themselves or have been missed, the cat will probably next present with a fever or swollen joints.
It may have problems with its eyes and swollen lymph glands. Because it has probably become very lethargic and will not be eating or drinking, it may also become dehydrated; this is also associated with the fever. It is vital that the animal be taken to the vet when these symptoms are first noticed, as if left untreated Lyme disease can affect other organs, including the kidneys and can be fatal.
Treatment of Lyme disease
At least one long course of antibiotic (most like tetracycline or amoxicillin) will be necessary to knock out an infection by the causative bacterium of Lyme disease. Blood tests for the disease are unreliable as false negatives are very common, so it is better to be safe than sorry and so most vets will give at least two courses. If it is caught early enough and no systemic damage has been done, the cat will make a full recovery but the climb back to health is a long one and the cat will be very susceptible to other diseases meanwhile, so it will have to be very carefully monitored throughout.
Prevention of Lyme Disease in Your Cat
If you happen to live in one of the high risk areas, it is essential that your cat is regularly treated to prevent tick bites. Spot-on, powders and sprays are all effective, but must be used on a regular basis to ensure the maximum protection. If possible, stop your cat from straying into ground where ticks may be, but in practice this is not easy, if you live in the country. Unfortunately, there is as yet no vaccine for cats against Lyme disease, although one is available for dogs, so a cat vaccine may not be far behind.
It is certainly well worth taking every precaution against tick bites, as Lyme disease is not the only thing that a tick can transmit through its bite. Vigilance in removing ticks if they do attach and watching your cat very carefully following the discovery of a tick is the best plan if your cat likes to wander.