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Lyme Disease in Cats: Sometimes the Vets Are Wrong

A vet in a recent newspaper column said cats don’t get it; I doubted that, so I checked the facts.

 |  Sep 27th 2013  |   1 Contribution


I recently saw a column written by a veterinarian in which a reader asked, “I just pulled a tick off my cat. Do I have to worry about Lyme disease?” The vet responded by saying that although Lyme disease can cause arthritis and kidney problems in dogs, and cats develop Lyme antibodies that can be detected by canine Lyme tests, cats don’t develop the clinical signs of Lyme disease.

“Hmm,” I thought. “That seems odd. Cats get infected but don’t get sick? How does that work?” So I investigated further.

Cats that go outdoors are obviously much more likely to get ticks than their indoor-only brethren. Cat walking in tall grass by Shutterstock

I didn’t have to investigate very far before I got some more accurate answers. According to PetMD (the animal equivalent of WebMD), although many cats don’t develop the symptoms, some do. It’s not common, but it does happen.

As with dogs, cats who develop Lyme disease may have recurrent lameness, which may shift from leg to leg, due to sore and swollen joints. Some cats even develop kidney problems, which can become chronic and lead to renal failure. Heart and nervous system abnormalities can also occur, but those symptoms are extremely rare.

Fortunately, Lyme disease responds well to antibiotic treatment ... if it’s caught before the bacteria cause permanent damage. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, a Lyme infection that remains untreated for an extended period -- several weeks or so -- can result in irreversible tissue damage.

Deer ticks are ridiculously small until they're engorged with blood. Adults never get bigger than a sesame seed, and juveniles can be smaller than the end of a pencil lead. Deer tick on a person's hand by Shutterstock

It’s critical not to write off Lyme disease as a possible cause of lameness and “ain’t doin’ right” symptoms, which is why I hate to see a column written by a vet with the headline “Cats don’t get Lyme disease.”

They can, they do, and it can make your cat very sick.

To give the vet some credit, she may not have written the headline. That task is often undertaken by newspaper or website editorial staff, and sometimes the headline doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the article. This has happened to me once or twice.

But still, this vet told readers that veterinary infectious-disease experts agree that cats infected “in a natural setting,” e.g., outdoors, don’t develop the clinical signs of Lyme. So far I’ve seen one expert, an animal parasitologist, say cats can’t get Lyme disease. However, the Cornell Feline Health Center, many other vets including this one, and even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, say they can. And I found those articles with five whole minutes of web searching. Oh, my, the Herculean labor! I'm positively gasping for breath, that was so hard!

The moral of the story: Sometimes even vets get it wrong. If something sounds odd to you, check it out, and get the latest word from trustworthy sources like Cornell Feline Health or the Centers for Disease Control. Your cat will thank you.

Prevent tick infestation by keeping your cat indoors if at all possible, and by using a product that repels or kills ticks. Cute kitten in window by Shutterstock

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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