Experts at the University of Georgia are urging cat owners across the state to proactively protect their pets as cases of cytauxzoonosis, or bobcat fever, an often fatal tick-borne disease, are spiking in middle Georgia.
Five counties in particular have seen a significant increase in cases of cytauxzoonosis, caused by a protozoa, which has a high mortality rate if not diagnosed in the earliest stages, said Nancy Hinkle, UGA Extension veterinary entomologist. Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jones and Putnam counties are currently ground zero for the deadly feline disease.
But being proactive can make all the difference for pets, emphasized Hinkle.
“The primary way to keep cats safe right now is to keep them indoors, safe from ticks,” she said. “As much as they may protest, cats can be indoor animals.”
Lone Star ticks pick up the disease organisms by feeding on bobcats and carry it to domestic cats when they feed on them. Interestingly, bobcats — which are common in Georgia — are unaffected by the protozoa.
If keeping pet cats inside 24 hours a day is not an option, Hinkle said that the animals should be protected from the ticks using an effective acaricidal product consistently and according to label directions.
“That means the right amount and the right timing. Please do not overdose and kill your pet while trying to protect it from ticks,” she warned. Suitable tick control products can be found in the home edition of the Georgia Pest Management Handbook.
Bobcat fever shows up periodically in domestic cats in Georgia and is deadly to cats, with more than 70% of infected cats dying unless they receive immediate veterinary care, Hinkle said. Cytauxzoonosis results in protozoal sepsis, characterized by systemic inflammatory response. Symptoms to look for are lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, anemia (pale gums), jaundice and difficulty breathing. Cats can become ill up to 15 days after a tick bite.
“You know your cat — if it’s not acting right, consult your veterinarian,” Hinkle, a cat owner, urged. “Again, once a cat becomes symptomatic, death can occur in less than three days without veterinary treatment.”
Even so, because this disease is not caused by bacteria, ordinary antibiotics are not effective. Prevention is the key.
Fortunately, humans nor dogs are susceptible to bobcat fever. However, dogs can pass ticks on to cats living in the same household. If pets spend time outdoors, daily tick checks are crucial, Hinkle said.
“Run your fingers through the animal’s coat, checking particularly around the head and neck as well as creases at joints. Ticks should be pinched close to the skin and pulled out with firm pressure, trying not to crush the tick. Any recovered ticks should be refrigerated in dated zipper storage bags for a month so they can be tested if the animal falls ill,” she recommended.
Keith Fielder, Extension coordinator for Hancock and Putnam counties, has been fielding calls for the past two weeks from four of the hardest-hit counties in Georgia as citizens have been reaching out for advice on tick control.
“This is a nasty disease. Protection is necessary and early treatment is crucial,” he said of the consistent advice he offers stressed callers.
Hinkle thinks this year’s "cyclical phenomenon" is likely due to the interactions of a variety of environmental factors that are out of a pet owner’s control. The only factor pet owners have control over is exposure of pet cats to ticks.
“All of my cats are strictly indoor animals. They experience no exposure to ticks. While some cats may protest not being allowed to roam outdoors, they live longer and healthier lives if they are maintained as indoor pets,” Hinkle said.
For more information about controlling ticks and other external parasites, see the "Animals and Honey Bees" section in the 2021 Home and Garden Edition of the Georgia Pest Management Handbook.