Cytauxzoonosis: From Ticks to Cats


“Most people have never heard of it, and when they do it sounds like it’s something from a science fiction movie,” says Dr. Wes Gunter of West Plains, MO. He’s talking about an often deadly tick born illness in cats, called cytauxzoonosis. The disease is also known as bobcat fever because bobcats use ticks as a vector to spread the disease, particularly via the Lone Star tick (and possibly other ticks species, including the American Dog tick)

“Cytauxzoonosis was once considered obscure,” says Gunter, who is located 90 miles southeast of Springfield, MO and about 30 minutes from the Arkansas border. After all, cytauxzoonosis was only discovered in 1976, ”Today, there are far more ticks. And where there are ticks, there’s disease.”

So, the bad news is that more cats are being exposed. The good news is that a fairly new protocol has been developed by Dr. Leah Cohn, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, Columbia. Previously only about a quarter of all cats (an estimate considered high by many experts) previously lived following a diagnosis of cytauxzoonosis. Cohn’s new protocol is a combination of two drugs, a common antibiotic called Azithromycin and a not-so-common drug  (and somewhat expensive drug) used for several purposes including as an anti-malarial, called Atovaquone. Cats diagnosed with cytauxzoonosis also require at least a few days of hospitalization with supportive medical care,

Dr. Robin Deck reports that Cohn’s drug protocol idea was tested early on where she works, in Gainesville, MO, She notes that the vast majority of cats previously died of cytauxzoonosis. Using Cohn’s protocol, 98 per cent lived.

Cohn’s data isn’t quite so optimistic; she suggests that 60 percent of cats survive using her protocol, which is an absolute improvement. “Still that means nearly half die; that too many for me to consider success,” Cohn says.

One secret to success is observing symptoms early. The disease progresses so quickly that even waiting a few days for a diagnosis might mean the difference between life and death. Cohn says the entire course of the disease is three to five days.

“Many of the symptoms are general so owners attribute not eating, for example, to being finicky,” says Cohn. “Or GI distress to just something that happens. If you live where cytauxzoonosis occurs – early intervention can save your cat’s life.”

Symptoms may include GI distress, lack of appetite, high fever, anemia (nose may appear pale), dyspnea (labored breathing) and jaundice.

Cytauxzoonosis occurs in all states southeast of Missouri and Kansas, and south of Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico and East of those states to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as tick numbers continue to spread, it’s likely cytauxzoonisis has dispersed beyond where it is known to be.

Prevention is possible, and suggested by Cohn. There are two general types of prevention. The best one is to keep cats indoors. While it’s not unheard of for ticks to fall from people or dogs (particularly dogs without tick protection) and then attach to the cat, being indoors offers a confident level of protection.

For cats who go outdoors – even for short periods of time – where cytauxzoonosis occurs, Cohn strongly recommends tick protection.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t as many quality products available and safe for cats to use (as for dogs),” she says.

The two choices Cohn suggests are a new tick collar made for cats called Seresto. This collar is effective because it actually repels ticks (as well as killing them). Seresto also kills fleas. This collar is sold over-the-counter and online. Seresto is effective for eight months.

Also, there’s a monthly spot on product, which has been the standard choice for tick protection in cats, called Frontline Plus. Frontline Plus also kills fleas, and is sold over-the-counter, through veterinarians and online.

“I hate this disease,” says Cohn. “It’s just a horrible disease and so unfair to the often very young and healthy cats in the prime of their lives.”

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services