Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted through tick bites. (The ticks themselves do not cause Lyme disease, but they do transmit the bacteria that causes it.) Currently, there are four known species of ticks that can spread the disease, but the majority of transmissions stem from deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks.
Lyme disease afflicts dogs much more frequently than cats. While cats can become infected, the disease has never been documented in a cat in a natural setting, outside the laboratory. An infected cat will rarely show clinical signs or need to be treated, like an infected human or dog would.
Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Cats
Most infected cats will not show any noticeable symptoms of Lyme disease. But because Lyme disease has the potential to be a severe condition and is common among humans and dogs, it is important to know how the disease is transmitted, as well as the signs of infection.
If you notice any of the following symptoms in your cat, consult your veterinarian immediately:
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Stiffness and swelling in the joints
Although cats have not been known to become sick with Lyme disease, certain symptoms that can mimic Lyme should be taken seriously and addressed with a vet if presented.
How Did My Cat Get Lyme Disease?
An infected tick can cause Lyme disease through its bite and subsequent feeding on the blood. Once a tick attaches itself to the skin, it takes approximately 1 to 2 days for it to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (although some researchers now believe that transmission can occur more rapidly). This is why prompt removal of ticks found on the body is extremely important.
Fortunately, because cats are such fastidious groomers, they will often remove ticks while cleaning themselves before they are at risk for infection.
Although cats usually do not get sick from Lyme disease, that doesn’t mean they don’t get exposed to it. While they may test positive for the disease, testing positive only proves exposure—which is not the same as illness! Naturally occurring Lyme disease has not ever been documented in cats.
Lyme disease is spread through the bite of an infected tick, but it takes up to two days (possibly less) for the bacteria to infect the host. Because cats are meticulous groomers, sometimes cleaning themselves multiple times a day, they are likely to remove the tick on their own before becoming infected.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Cats
A Lyme disease diagnosis is based on history, signs of the disease, laboratory tests, and the elimination of other possible diseases/disorders.
Your vet will take a complete medical history and ask about your cat’s outdoor activity (if any), as well as when you first noticed symptoms. A complete physical examination will be carried out along with other testing, including a blood analysis to determine whether your cat has contracted the disease.
The vet will follow a series of steps (history, signs/symptoms, lab tests) to determine a Lyme disease diagnosis.
Treating Your Cat for Lyme Disease
Animals that display signs of Lyme disease are required to be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, antibiotics may not work the first time around, so a second round of treatment is needed.
Limb and joint conditions caused by Lyme disease respond rapidly to treatment in most cases, although these symptoms may not disappear completely in some Lyme-infected animals even after treatment. If left untreated, the infection can result in irreversible tissue damage.
Is There a Cure for Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics. If the disease remains untreated for several weeks, the recovery process may be prolonged.
Is Lyme Disease Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Both humans and other animals, including dogs, can become infected with Lyme disease. However, they can contract the infection only if they are directly bitten by an infected tick; a cat exposed to Lyme disease cannot directly pass along the infection. (Keep in mind that they may bring unattached, infected ticks into the home, which can then attach themselves to another person or animal to infect them.)
What Is the Cost for Treating Lyme Disease?
When treating Lyme disease, office visits to the vet and diagnostic blood work should be factored into the overall cost. The cost of a complete physical exam varies by veterinarian, with costs higher in larger cities. Blood work can run upwards of $300. Antibiotics are a separate cost.
Antibiotics are prescribed for the treatment of Lyme disease. While both humans and dogs are more susceptible to the disease than cats, they can not “catch” it from a cat. The cost of treating Lyme disease depends on various factors, including what your vet charges for an office visit along with additional testing and medication.
Recovery and Management of Lyme Disease in Cats
The recovery process depends on how long the cat has had Lyme disease and whether any tissue has been damaged as a result. Because the disease is not commonly found in cats, there isn’t a lot of information available when it comes to the treatment and recovery of Lyme-damaged tissue in felines.
Lyme disease in cats is very rare (and potentially nonexistent), making information about treatment and recovery sparse as well.
Preventing Lyme Disease in Cats
Despite its rarity, it’s important to take preventative measures to protect your cat from becoming infected with Lyme disease, as well as other diseases spread by ticks.
Cats are excellent groomers on their own, but it’s still important to brush your cat carefully and check their coat for ticks, especially if they’ve been outside. To protect yourself when removing a tick, always wear gloves.They can be difficult to kill, so dispose of them in rubbing alcohol to ensure they don’t attach themselves to anyone else in the home.
Tick control medications and products are available (such as sprays and monthly “spot-on” products). Talk to your vet to see if they are appropriate for your cat.
Is There a Vaccine for Lyme Disease in Cats?
While there is a vaccine available for Lyme disease in dogs, there is no preventative vaccine for cats.
Because a Lyme disease vaccine does not exist for cats, take preventative measures at home to protect your cat. Although Lyme disease is not a concern for cats, it’s still a good idea to be educated so you can protect your pets (and your family!) from possible exposure and infection.