Deadly disease threatens domestic cats

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Sep 16, 2017 at 11:00 AM

When Burley the cat started acting strangely, his owner and Lebanon resident Cheryl Lewis knew it was time to take him to the vet. 

Unfortunately, even with treatment and close care, Burley didn’t make it. He died at 1 year old.

Burley contracted a disease known as bobcat fever. The disease is deadly for domestic cats and is most commonly transmitted through a lone-star tick. Cats often begin acting depressed, lethargic, breathing heavily and stop eating and drinking. Lewis said with Burley, it was easy to tell something was wrong.

“That poor little guy. It looked like it hurt him to walk across the floor. It looked like he was drunk,” Lewis said. 

The disease often acts quickly, becoming fatal in one-to-three weeks, and the survival rate isn’t good even with newer treatments. 

“Historically, sources say, it’s been 100-percent fatal, but they have adjusted some of the treatments,” said Dr. Matte Haley with Kinslow Veterinary Clinic in Lebanon. “With some of the newer treatments, you’re looking at a 60-65-percent survival rate. A lot of that depends on how sick the cat is when they come in for treatment.” 

Haley said he has already seen at least 15 confirmed cases this year, and more cases seem to show up each year. It’s seen almost exclusively in the south-central and Southeastern U.S., and like the name suggests, it comes from a bobcat.

“The bobcats have a subclinical response, which means they’re not affected as badly as domestic cats,” Haley said. “A tick has to bite a bobcat, and then it’s passed along by the tick to domestic cats.”

Burley was mostly an inside cat with a few trips outside accompanied by Lewis. He was a rescue cat from a local animal shelter, and he had all the usual checkups and enjoyed months of good health before coming down with bobcat fever. 

“He was a strong and vibrant kitten. He was healthy. Then, all the sudden, he was lethargic and couldn’t hardly walk without wobbling all over the place,” Lewis said.

Lewis took Burley to see Dr. Christopher McAteer, who was instantly concerned after seeing the cat attempt to walk. The vet took some of Burley’s blood and sent it to be tested. 

“By the time we realized what we were dealing with, it was too late,” Lewis said. “It really is a devastating thing.”

Haley said most cases are diagnosed in the warmer months between March and September, but Burley got sick in the wintertime. They had to put Burley to sleep on her birthday in January, just a few short weeks after the first symptoms showed up.

Treatments for the disease can get expensive. Haley said it usually costs between $500-$700 to treat the disease, which starts with IV fluids at a veterinary office, may require the cat to stay multiple nights, and if they do get to go home, will take oral medicine, as well. 

Recent years have seen more success with treating the disease, but it’s still mostly fatal because it acts so fast. While researchers work on a cure for bobcat fever, the best thing cat owners can do is prevent fleas and ticks. 

“Good flea and tick prevention is what you need to be doing,” Haley said. “That’s the best thing, and use it all year long.”

Lewis said her cat that came along after Burley died gets the best flea and tick control on the market.

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