Early detection and treatment are key for cats here to survive bobcat fever

Mammoth resident Dawn Carr, left, said her Maine coon cat Kenny is doing well after being treated for bobcat fever last week by Robin Deck, right, small animal vet at Gainesville Veterinary Clinic. Kenny came home Friday after a stay at the clinic. Carr said she would be giving him medicine three times a day until Wednesday. Times photo/Amelia LaMair

Michelle Gurley’s cat Mini Orange, shown here, survived bobcat fever after Gurley treated the pet following alternative treatment methods. Photo courtesy of Michelle Gurley.

Some Ozark County cats are coming down with a painful, fast-acting and often lethal disease called bobcat fever. Mammoth resident Dawn Carr’s beloved Maine coon cat Kenny is one of them. After being treated by veterinarian Robin Deck last week at Gainesville Veterinary Clinic, he is doing well now, says Carr, who is no stranger to the illness. Three of her seven cats have survived bobcat fever after undergoing treatment.
“If our fur babies know they are loved and encouraged to live it helps,” she said. “This is an expensive disease too, so many people don’t choose the treatment. ... We’ve been very lucky and blessed with our cats, and Robin has been great.”
Another of Carr’s cats, Patty, was one of 27 cats successfully treated during a University of Missouri study that tested a new protocol. The study, conducted by Mizzou veterinarian Leah Cohn, a small animal disease expert, and Adam Birkenheuer from the North Carolina State University, in collaboration with veterinarians, including Deck, led to the development of the most effective treatment to date. If caught early and treated aggressively, Deck estimates a 35 to 65 percent chance of recovery.
The treatment consists of a 10-day regimen of an antimalarial drug called atovaquone, an antibiotic, and supportive treatment. Infected cats are hospitalized until they start eating again. Deck says treatment typically costs around $600.
Bobcat fever’s scientific name is cytauxzoonosis. It’s an infectious disease caused by a protozoan parasite called Cytauxzoon felis. Bobcats are the natural hosts of C felis; it’s then transmitted to domestic cats through tick bites, especially from lone star ticks.
Cohn, considered an expert on bobcat fever, said mountain lions and other wild cats can also carry the disease, and tigers can even be affected. Most bobcats carry the disease but show no symptoms. A research article published by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine reported that up to 80 percent of bobcats tested in Missouri carry the disease. Luckily, the disease only affects cats, so humans and dogs are safe. Research also shows that the disease is not transmittable from cat to cat through saliva.
Basically, when a tick feeds on an infected host, C felis enters its digestive system and reproduces then travels to the tick’s salivary glands. When the tick bites a cat, the single-celled protozoan enters the cat’s body and starts multiplying, eventually spreading throughout the cat’s bloodstream and organs, obstructing blood flow and leading to organ failure.
Robin Deck said the incubation period “ranges from five to 20 days after the tick bite, and cats usually die two to three days after their fever spikes.” Early signs of the disease are lack of appetite, lethargy and high fever. A cat’s normal body temperature is 101 to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, so a 103- to 107-degree temperature, taken rectally, qualifies as a high fever. As the disease progresses, infected cats can also become jaundiced and have trouble breathing. When the cat’s third eyelids come over its eyes, the animal is highly unlikely to survive, sources say.
Deck has seen many cases of bobcat fever over the years. She moved to the area in 1985 and recalls seeing the disease that first year. She has noticed that the number of cases fluctuates from year to year, probably depending on the bobcat population. In Ozark County, May through September is the heavy period for infection, she said, but infection can occur anytime ticks are active. Deck has seen cases as early as April and as late as October. Although the parasite usually shows up in rural areas, even cats in Gainesville proper have been infected.
Deck has seen eight cats with bobcat fever so far this year and says she has seen as many as three cases in one day. According to an article on www.merckvetmanual.com, bobcat fever has been seen in Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa and Virginia.
When Brixey resident Michelle Gurley’s cat, Mini Orange, came down with bobcat fever, she used an intensive regimen of herbal and homeopathic treatments.  She went looking for Mini Orange one moring when the cat wasn’t in her usual spot by the door, waiting for her morning food. “I found her sitting motionless, looking obviously ill. She looked like she could barely hold her head up. I knew immediately something was seriously wrong. She is a half-feral cat and would normally not have let me handle her, but she was so ill that she did not resist at all,” said Gurley. “I took her inside and took her temperature ..., and it was 107 degrees. She was completely lethargic. The other prominent symptom she had was that her third eyelid was partially covering both eyes.”
When Gurley called the vet’s office, she was told that the exposed third eyelid indicated bobcat fever but that treatment was expensive and far from guaranteed. Gurley weighed her options and did some research, consulting others in the area who had treated bobcat fever. She used their recommendations as well as her own knowledge and experience with herbal medicine to formulate a treatment plan consisting of anti-parasitic, immune-supporting and blood-purifying tinctures (herbs extracted in alcohol), homeopathic tablets and colloidal silver (a suspension of mineral silver in water). She nursed Mini Orange around the clock, feeding her chicken broth and water with a syringe and tracking her temperature daily.
“On the seventh day she ate on her own again. On the third night the fever came down by a degree and continued to come down by one degree per day,” said Gurley.
There is no vaccine to protect cats from bobcat fever. The University of North Carolina has done research toward developing one, but Deck, who also contributed tissue samples to that study, is skeptical that a vaccine will ever be developed. While some cats appear to have a natural genetic resistance to the disease, they can still act as hosts. Deck says Seresto brand collars work; the brand claims to repel and kill fleas and ticks for eight months. But Deck warns that “anything where they are still getting bitten, which is pretty much everything,” still leaves a chance for infection.
Opinions vary as to how long a tick has to be attached before the disease is transmitted, but it can reportedly be as little as 10 minutes in some situations. The only real prevention is to keep cats indoors at all times and make sure dogs and other pets don’t bring ticks into the house. Although this is impractical for many cat owners, it could be a beneficial compromise. According to the American Bird Conservancy, which advocates for keeping cats indoors, “cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year in the U.S. alone, making cat predation by far the largest human-caused mortality threat to birds.” Perhaps bobcat fever is nature’s cruel but effective way to balance the domestic cat population.
Deck stresses that when the disease does strike, early detection and swift action are key to treating it. With such a short window for treating the disease, it’s a good idea for owners of outdoor cats to consider a potential treatment plan before symptoms arise. Keeping a close eye out for unusual behavior will help cat owners catch the disease early. “Our cats go outside, but they all come in every night. So if one is acting lethargic and feels warm, I take them in,” Carr said.  “Typically they seek water and avoid other cats. They just don’t act normal. I believe if you catch it early and do lots of visits while it’s at the vet so it doesn’t feel abandoned, they can beat it. Of course it’s a disease, and that’s not always the case.
Gurley also believes that early treatment was crucial to saving her cat. “Two important factors ... were that the cat was young and healthy at the outset of the illness and that I caught it very quickly.  The previous night the cat did not seem ill. I believe one day of me not catching this might have made the difference,” she said.
Deck is straightforward in her assessment of bobcat fever “It’s a bad deal, not a happy time. If you want to treat it, don’t wait.”

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