Worms, ticks and fleas: Most people are familiar with these common parasites that can infect and feed off a cat. Don't feel bad if you aren't familiar with the bacterial parasites mycoplasma, microorganisms that live and grow without the benefit of oxygen. Ticks and fleas are vectors for these bacteria, putting your cat at risk for infection.
Mycoplasma are robust organisms, able to assume different shapes and spread throughout a host's systems. They can cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections. They're found just about everywhere, causing disease in people, insects, plants and animals -- including your cat.
A cat may become infected via a contaminated medical instrument, such as a needle or surgical tool -- but more commonly an infected flea, mosquito or tick is the culprit. After transmission, the cat's red blood cells carry mycoplasma throughout her body. An infection of mycoplasma is called mycoplasmosis.
If your cat enjoys strolling about during the spring and summer, she's at greater risk of infection. Male cats younger than 4 to 6 years of age have a greater tendency to be infected, as they're more likely to engage in cat fights -- another transmission risk. Cats who don't receive flea and tick protection are vulnerable.
Symptoms of Mycoplasmosis
It can take up to a month for a mycoplasma infection to present symptoms. Multiple joint inflammation, referred to as polyarthritis, may show up in the ankles, knees, shoulders and hips. Fever, loss of appetite, dehydration, lameness, difficulty moving and general discomfort are common symptoms. There may be some mild respiratory effects such as sneezing, as well as reddened eyes, squinting or blinking, and discharge or fluid from the eyes. The cat's skin may develop abscesses, and infections may pop up in the urinary tract or respiratory system. A cat may become anemic, resulting in weakness, jaundice and the occasional consumption of litter or dirt -- an instinctive attempt to increase iron intake.
Mycoplasma don't have cell walls, which means they can't be cultured and are difficult to diagnose. The organisms circulate throughout the blood, rapidly moving in and out of blood cells. A blood sample may show infected cells, but another test as few as three hours later may not reveal the organisms' presence because they have moved along.
Fortunately, the polyermase chain reaction blood test successfully detects the organisms' presence. This test magnifies small amounts of DNA, including parasite DNA, allowing diagnosis of mycoplasmosis.
Tetracyclines are usually the preferred antibiotics for treating feline mycoplasmosis. Steroids are often part of the treatment protocol, helpful for slowing the destruction of red blood cells, casualties of the parasites. Occasionally, a blood transfusion is necessary. An untreated cat faces about a 1-in-3 chance of not surviving mycoplasma infection, so veterinary attention is necessary.
Once infected, a cat is a carrier, vulnerable to periodic relapses. Though there is no vaccine to prevent the disease itself, prevention starts with keeping your cat indoors, and using effective flea and tick control, to greatly minimize her risk of exposure.