Rabies in Cats

Why getting your feline the vaccine is important

Examining a Kitten
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As a pet owner, you know that your pet is vulnerable to rabies. However, do you understand all the aspects of the rabies disease for your cat? Are you aware of how rabies can affect your other pets and family members? It is important to understand why your cat needs a rabies vaccine.

What Is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus that negatively affects a mammal’s central nervous system. It is almost always fatal and death typically occurs within a week after symptoms occur. The disease is transmitted by bites from infected animals. It is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can spread to people via animals. If bitten by an animal with rabies, humans are susceptible to the virus, just as animals are. Most cases involve non-domesticated animals such as skunks, raccoons, and bats. Domestic pets like cats and dogs can also be infected.

Symptoms of Rabies

There are various symptoms of rabies and all symptoms may not be present in every infected animal. The first signs you may see could be changes in your cat’s behavior; it may become withdrawn, anxious, shy, or fearful. Your pet may also lick the wound from the bite.  These first symptoms could then lead to more behavior changes such as restlessness, agitation, difficulty walking, and atypical reactions to noises and sights. The “foaming at the mouth” symptom that is typically associated with the rabies disease happens from paralysis of the muscles responsible for swallowing and vocalizing. This prevents the cat from swallowing so there is excess “foamy” saliva.

Rabies Transmission

When an animal or person is bitten by an infected animal, the saliva transmits the disease through the nerves and spine and into the brain. There is an incubation period of anywhere from 3 to 24 weeks while no symptoms are present. Once the brain gets infected, the rabies virus duplicates to the salivary glands and the symptoms will start to show. In rare cases, the virus can be passed through eyes, nose, or mouth contact. Biting is the most common way the disease is transmitted. 

Diagnosing Rabies

To determine the level of concern for rabies virus in cats, veterinarians will look for signs of the symptoms and review patient history. However, a definitive diagnosis can only be confirmed after the animal’s death with a brain tissue sample and a direct fluorescent antibody test (dFA). Humans can be diagnosed by testing saliva, hair, skin, and blood samples but these are not certain nor does this type of testing work for animals. If your cat has been exposed to rabies virus, it will need to be quarantined so that symptoms, if they develop, can be recognized. This is especially true for unvaccinated pets. Any cat that develops symptoms will be euthanized. 

Rabies Treatment

Rabies has no cure and there is no treatment to remedy the virus. When animals show the advanced signs of rabies, euthanasia is the only option. Since death is almost always the result of this disease, euthanasia prevents your pet from suffering and prevents the disease from transmitting to other animals and humans.

When a human is exposed to rabies, they must begin a treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This treatment involves a series of injections of rabies vaccine and immune globulin. PEP will not work after a human shows signs of being infected. Even in humans, when symptoms appear, this disease is almost always fatal. At this stage, supportive care will be necessary for the comfort of the patient.

Preventing Rabies

Rabies prevention is simple and the best way to guard against contracting the virus. Your cat should receive routine rabies vaccines. The frequency of this routine varies between one and three years. Your veterinarian can explain what is legally required for vaccination of rabies and help you make the best choice for your pet.

There is also a vaccine for humans, but the guidelines and processes are different than for animals. People who work with wildlife or pets and those who travel to areas that have a high risk of exposure to rabies can be given the vaccine. However, even those who have received the vaccine will have to complete PEP if exposed.

After vaccination, keeping your pet from being exposed to rabies will help prevent the possibility of infection. Keep your cat in your sight when it is outdoors and do not let them roam areas that wildlife inhabit. Do not allow your cat around animals you are not familiar with and if your pet does get an animal bite, take him to your vet immediately.

Prevention of rabies for humans is also important. Teach children to be cautious around animals. When a human is bitten by an animal, they should see their doctor right away. 

When an animal or human is bitten by an animal, get as much information about the animal as you can. You should get owner contact information, pet vaccination history, and any rabies exposure that the pet may have had. If the bite was from a wild animal there may not be much information you can capture, but it is essential to notify the local authorities.

Rabies is easily preventable even though it is a dangerous and deadly virus. The two most important things to remember are to ensure your pet gets routine rabies vaccinations and always keep exposure to a minimum. Understanding what rabies is, the signs, expected progression and outcome, and how to prevent rabies will keep you and your entire family--pets and people--safe.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  1. Rabies in cats - cat owners. Merck Veterinary Manual.

  2. Rabies vaccine information statement. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.