Rabies is a deadly virus that damages the central nervous system of mammals. This zoonotic disease can spread to people and other animals, typically via bites from those already infected. Rabies often affects wildlife like raccoons, skunks, and bats, but it can easily affect domesticated cats and dogs.
Reports of cats with rabies exceed those in dogs, perhaps because more cats are allowed to roam free and may come into contact with rabid wildlife or stray animals.
After a cat has been exposed to rabies, it can take weeks to months for signs to appear. Once the signs of rabies appear in a cat, death usually occurs within about a week. There is no treatment for rabies in animals. This is why rabies vaccination is absolutely essential for all cats.
The signs of rabies in cats are typically seen in three stages: prodromal, excitative, and paralytic.
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Before signs of rabies appear, you may notice a bite wound or abscess on your cat. This might have come from wildlife, another cat, or even a dog, any of which may carry rabies.
Any bite wound or other injury should be treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Discuss your cat's rabies vaccination history with your vet so you can understand the risk of them contracting this disease.
If the cat has previously been vaccinated against rabies, your vet may recommend re-vaccination after the bite, especially if the vaccine is overdue. This can boost immunity and prevent rabies from infecting the cat.
If the cat has never been vaccinated for rabies, then there is no treatment available. These animals typically need to be quarantined and observed for signs of rabies. Sadly, humane euthanasia is the only option once signs of rabies begin.
The typical incubation period of rabies in cats lasts one to three months after exposure, but it may last longer in some cases. During this time, the virus travels through the body to the nervous system, eventually reaching the brain. The signs of rabies infection appear after this incubation period. Once signs of rabies appear, death typically occurs within about a week.
Note that cats may be able to spread rabies several days before signs appear.
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This is when the first signs of rabies affect the cat's behavior. You may notice that your outgoing cat is suddenly shy and hiding. Fearful cats might even become more confident. The cat may become lethargic and the appetite may decrease.
Behavior and personality changes vary by case; some cats will exhibit very noticeable personality changes as the virus takes its toll on the brain. Other cats will only show mild changes at first, making it difficult to make a definitive diagnosis.
The prodromal stage of rabies usually lasts two to three days.
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During this second stage, cats tend to show more extreme behavior changes. They appear agitated and restless and often overreact to normal sights and sounds. Many cats will become aggressive for no apparent reason. They may attack people, other animals, and even objects without provocation.
The excitative stage can last one to seven days and may somewhat overlap the other stages.
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During the final stage of rabies, the cat develops weakness and eventually paralysis in the head, neck, and chest. The larynx will become paralyzed and the cat will no longer be able to vocalize or swallow. This is when the well-known sign of "foaming at the mouth" begins; if the cat is unable to swallow, salivation becomes excessive.
As weakness turns to paralysis, the muscles that control breathing can no longer function, leading to death.
The paralytic stage of rabies lasts two to four days and ultimately leads to death.
It's important to understand that each case of rabies is unique and the cat's signs may not match the typical signs described above.
Cats with known exposure to rabies or with any signs, even subtle ones, will need to be quarantined to protect people and other animals from exposure. Sick animals with suspected rabies will need to be euthanized.
If a cat with suspected rabies has bitten a person, that cat will need to be quarantined for ten days. This is because we know that death occurs soon after signs of rabies appear. If the cat does not die during the quarantine, then the bite could not have transmitted rabies to that person.
The only way to definitely diagnose rabies is through analysis of the brain tissue. After death, the brain must be sent to a pathologist for testing.