Cat disease cutting swath in rural Baldwin
A new, fatal disease has killed six pet cats in the Baldwin area so far this summer, and experts fear more cases in the future.
No vaccine or cure exists for cytauxzoonosis. One treatment, with a drug called Imizole, can help cats whose symptoms are recognized early enough, said Robert Ridley, a professor of veterinary science at Kansas State University. But this
treatment is quite new, and it is rare for pet owners to notice their cats' symptoms in time. For such reasons, cytauxzoonosis kills virtually every domestic cat it infects. So far this summer, seven pet cats in the area are thought to have been infected. Just one of these cats survived, and "it was lucky," said David Nottingham, DVM, of the Baldwin Junction Veterinary Clinic.
Cytauxzoonosis is caused by a single-celled parasite and spread by ticks. It does not affect dogs. Cats suffering from cytauxzoonosis are lethargic and depressed, stop eating, and run high fevers usually between 103 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. From the
onset of these symptoms, "a grave prognosis is the general rule," said Tim Jones, DVM, of Baldwin's Companion Animal Hospital. Most cats die just a few days after the symptoms are first noticed by their owners.
Such was the experience of Bruce Brown, 405 East 1750 Road, who lost two cats to cytauxzoonosis this summer. "Oreo," a black and white female, disappeared after showing cytauxzoonosis symptoms for five days last July. Earlier this month, "Betty," a calico female, died in Jones' office three days after her lethargy and anorexia prompted Brown to take her to the vet. After having
heard a radio program on cytauxzoonosis, Brown said he suspected that might be the disease afflicting his family's pet.
"I thought that was what it was, so I took her to Dr. Tim. He said, 'If it is, there's nothing we can do about it,'" Brown said.
Pet owners can help prevent cytauxzoonosis in their cats. Medicines that kill ticks, such as Frontline's Top Spot, are recommended by Jones and Nottingham. Products that merely repel ticks are not sufficient. Both "Oreo" and "Betty" were wearing flea and tick collars when they were infected, Brown said. Since
cytauxzoonosis is spread by ticks, it can also be prevented by keeping cats indoors until tick season is over. That may be soon.
"Certainly by September cats can go out and not worry much about picking up American dog ticks," said Greg Burg, an
entomologist at the University of Kansas who studies ticks.
The American dog tick is the species of tick thought responsible for spreading cytauxzoonosis. But, vets warn, ticks can get into homes on the fur of other pets, or on an owner's clothing, so even keeping cats indoors will not absolutely guarantee healthy pets.
Bobcats carry the parasite that causes cytauxzoonosis, although they apparently aren't sickened by it. Ticks that feed on bobcats can later feed on domestic cats, injecting the cytauxzoonosis parasite as they do. For this reason, outdoor cats that live in areas frequented by bobcats are at the highest risk.
The disease was first identified in southern states in 1976, and moved to Kansas more recently. Nottingham said he saw his first case three years ago, and has seen two or three cats a year with cytauxzoonosis ever since. Lisa Moore, an assistant professor of veterinary science at Kansas State University, said she thought the disease was first confirmed to be in Kansas about five years ago.
Cytauxzoonosis attacks the cat's red blood cells. The resulting lack of blood cells causes weakness and lethargy. Organ damage results both from the cat not having enough blood in circulation, and from the need to dispose the many red blood cells damaged by the parasites. After that, "they just crash," said Nottingham.
Experts say that cytauxzoonosis is here to stay.
"I think it is here to stay and we definitely should be wary of it in primarily outdoor cats in wooded areas," Moore said. "I think we will continue to see cases in this population of cats."
"It's not one of those things that's rampant yet, but it's
going to be a problem," he said.
(Rachel Robson is a graduate student in biomedical sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center.)