Condition/Cat/Exotic Diseases

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What is it?

The term ‘exotic diseases’ refers to diseases that do not occur under normal circumstances in the UK. It is not impossible for these diseases to enter the UK. Cats who travel overseas with their owners or those that are imported from international rescue centres are at risk of being exposed to diseases not found in the UK.

Why is it important?

A 2018 study reported that 40% of UK vets have seen cases of rare or new diseases associated with imported pets in the last year.

The pet travel scheme rules state that animals imported to the UK must have a rabies vaccine and tapeworm treatment, but this does not take account of the fact that the animal may be developing another disease for which vaccination would have little or no effect.

Diseases can spread by:

  • Bites from infected animals
  • Infected ticks
  • Direct contact, or contact with infected faeces or urine
  • Infected insect vectors, such as sandflies and mosquitoes

  • What is the risk?

    Diseases like rabies, babesiosis, Echinococcus multiocularis (tapeworm) and leishmaniasis have serious risks to human health as well as cats.

    What happens to the cat?

    It depends on the specific disease. Common ones are listed below:


    A parasitic disease, spread by sandflies which suck blood and transmit infection. Sandflies are widespread in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East.

    Signs of disease: The disease itself is relatively rare in cats, but they show similar signs to dogs, with skin lesions, lymph node enlargement, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, eye problems, and kidney disease. Signs only occur in a proportion of cats; therefore some may be infected without showing signs, and become a ‘reservoir’ of infection. Wild cats are regarded as a reservoir of infection in areas where there is a high level of disease in dogs. These cats can aid the spread of the disease by infecting sandflies who bite them. The disease is potentially fatal for cats and humans.

    Diagnosis: blood tests, tissue samples (no validated tests for cats at present).

    Treatment: Drug treatment has not been well studied in cats. The cat may always carry the disease, increasing the risk of spread.


    This is a blood borne parasite spread by bites from infected ticks. There has been a recent case report of Babesia being found in an imported cat from South Africa 3 weeks after import to the UK.

    Signs of disease: Lethargy, weakness, pale or yellow gums, bleeding disorders. Cats may be able to cope with quite severe anaemia (blood loss) but show disease signs when stressed. The disease may be fatal.

    Diagnosis: blood smears

    Treatment: Drug therapy not well studied in cats. Some cats require a blood transfusion.


    Rabies is a virus which attacks the spinal cord and brain tissues. It is spread by bites from infected animals. The UK has been officially rabies free since 1922. Diseases like rabies are known as ‘Notifiable Diseases’. This means that there is a government strategy in place to deal with any potential case of rabies, in order to control and prevent spread of the disease, which is also a danger to humans. Cats imported to the UK must be vaccinated against rabies. In the USA, rabies is reported most frequently in cats.

    Signs of infection: Agitation, aggression, progressive paralysis of the throat causing foaming at the mouth, disorientation, seizures, coma and death

    Diagnosis: antibody on brain tissue (after death)

    Treatment: none – rabies cannot be cured in cats, and affected animals must be euthanased because of the serious infection risk to humans and other animals. In humans there are strict guidelines for rapid treatment known as Post Exposure Prophylaxis.


    A bacterial infection spread by bites from infected ticks, widespread in the USA and found worldwide

    Signs of infection: intermittent fever, lethargy, abnormal bleeding, swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain. Some cats may become carriers. Infection may recur despite treatment.

    Diagnosis: blood tests

    Treatment: several weeks of doxycycline antibiotics. More severe cases may require a blood transfusion.

    Tapeworm (Echinococcus multiocularis):

    This species of tapeworm is different from the UK’s native types, and is widespread in central and eastern Europe, particularly France, Switzerland and Germany. Dogs and foxes release worm eggs in their faeces, but the parasite also spends part of its life cycle in rodents. Cats may become infected by eating an infected rodent.

    Signs of infection: cats may be infected by Echinococcus tapeworm and show no outward signs, but tapeworm may cause serious disease in humans.

    Diagnosis: faecal screen

    Treatment: wormer containing praziquantel


    Caused by worms that live in the heart, lungs and blood vessels, this parasite leads to heart failure and serious lung disease. Disease is spread by mosquitoes who take blood meals. Disease is widespread in the USA and worldwide. In areas with a high level of heartworm infection in dogs and wild dogs, cats may also pick up the infection.

    Signs of infection: coughing, lethargy, difficulty breathing, reduced appetite and weight loss. May present with signs of heart failure such as a swollen abdomen. Sudden death can occur.

    Diagnosis: blood tests

    Treatment: prevention is best, monthly prevention with spot on treatments/tablets licensed to kill heartworm in cats; however, few are licensed in the UK.

    How can I protect my pet?

  • Tapeworm treatment – required under PETS travel scheme to be given 1-5 days before re-entry to the UK.
  • In 2012, pet travel rules on tick control were relaxed. It is still highly recommended that the cat is protected from tick attachment prior to travel, Seresto collars are licensed and safe for cats
  • Never use spot on treatments or collars licensed for dogs, on cats. Cats are very sensitive to poisoning by pyrethroid products often used in parasite prevention for dogs.
  • Rabies vaccination before travel – follow PETS travel scheme guidelines.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to adopt a cat from an overseas shelter with an uncertain disease status.