Rabies, a viral disease, dates back thousands of years. It is a lethal and highly transmissible viral infection of the nervous system that can infect many types of warm-blooded animals, including cats, dogs, and humans. In fact, over 30,000 people worldwide still die of rabies every year.
Rabies vaccination is especially critical for cats as they are the most commonly reported rabid domestic animal in the United States: reported cases of the virus in domestic cats have outnumbered those in dogs every year since 1990.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies in Cats
It can take up to a year for symptoms to materialize after the initial bite that infects a cat. How quickly the symptoms of rabies develop may depend on the following:
- The site of infection. The closer the bite is to the brain and the spinal cord the faster the virus reaches the nervous tissues and causes symptoms. The further the wound is from the brain, the longer the incubation period.
- The severity of the bite.
The incubation period (the time between infection and development of clinical signs) in cats is typically 4-8 weeks, although there can be some variability.
Signs and symptoms of the rabies virus include:
- Sudden and severe change in behavior
- An unfriendly cat becomes friendly, and vice versa
- Loss of appetite, apprehension or nervousness, irritability, hyperexcitability
- Unexplained paralysis that gets worse as time passes
- Seizures, twitching, or muscle tremors
- Drooling, foaming at the mouth, difficulty swallowing
Rabies progresses in three stages:
Prodromal Stage: first 2–3 days of symptoms
- Change in personality/temperament
- Larynx begins to spasm, change in voice may occur
- Licking or scratching of the bite that caused the infection
- Quiet cats become agitated, possibly aggressive
- Outgoing cats may become shy or nervous
Excitative or Furious Stage: the next 1–7 days
- Classified as the “mad dog” stage
- No fear, possible hallucinations (this is when a rabid cat poses the greatest danger to humans and other animals)
- Increasingly nervous, irritable, vicious
- If confined, a rabid cat will often attack the bars of the cage
Paralytic Stage: the final 2–4 days
- Weakness/paralysis sets in
- Larynx becomes paralyzed: the cat is unable to swallow, causing drooling and foaming at the mouth
- When the muscles that control breathing gradually become paralyzed, death occurs within a few hours
The early stages of rabies can easily be confused with another disease or simply aggressive tendencies in general, making diagnosis difficult in living animals. The only way to accurately confirm the presence of the rabies virus is to test the brain of the deceased animal.
The rabies virus progresses in three stages. Once a cat is showing symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly. However, the first symptoms can mimic other diseases, making a diagnosis difficult.
How Did My Cat Get Rabies?
Cats usually contract rabies through the bite of an infected animal. The saliva, which contains the virus, enters the victim’s tissues and attaches itself to the local muscles for a few days before infiltrating the local nerves and beginning its slow climb to the brain. At this point, the virus is more evident in all body secretions, including saliva.
Cats usually contract the rabies virus through a bite from an infected animal.
Diagnosing Rabies in Cats
The rabies virus in cats is difficult to diagnose, especially in geographical locations where it’s not commonly found. A rabies diagnosis can only be confirmed through laboratory testing of the deceased animal’s brain. If rabies is suspected, or a cat showing symptoms of rabies dies suddenly, your veterinarian may suggest testing. Some general precautions to take:
- If a cat shows or develops any signs of rabies, he must be evaluated by a veterinarian and reported to the local health department. Humane euthanasia is strongly recommended.
- If a cat bites a person or another animal and its vaccination status is unknown, the cat should be confined and kept under observation for a period of 10 days.
A rabies-infected cat will only transmit the disease after clinical signs have developed. If the cat is still alive or is not exhibiting any clinical signs of rabies after the 10-day observation period, then the bite could not have transmitted rabies since the cat was not shedding the rabies virus at the time of the bite.
If your cat is bitten by a stray cat or wild animal, the cat should be confined inside for six months. If your cat is not vaccinated and was bitten by an animal highly suspected to be rabid, humane euthanasia may be directed by the health department or animal control. However, it is more likely that the recommended course of action will be a series of rabies vaccines to prevent post-exposure infection, followed by a period of quarantine.
A fully accurate diagnosis can be obtained only by testing the brain tissue of a deceased animal; it is currently impossible to test for the virus in any living animal. A 10-day quarantine is mandatory for an unvaccinated animal that has bitten someone, to determine whether the rabies virus was in the animal’s saliva at the time of the bite. All bites that break skin must be reported to the appropriate health department.
Treating Your Cat for Rabies
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for a cat that has been infected with rabies and is showing symptoms.
If you or your cat has potentially been exposed to the rabies virus due to a bite from an animal suspected of having rabies, seek medical treatment immediately. Again, there is no cure once signs of the infection begin to materialize.
If your cat has been bitten, your veterinarian may take the following precautions:
- Medication. One or more rabies vaccinations may be recommended for a cat who has potentially been exposed to the virus. Additionally, immediate disinfection of bite wounds may help decrease risk of infection. However, do not clean or disinfect wounds at home without first consulting with a veterinarian.
- Booster. Vaccinated cats are given a booster vaccine and may be quarantined for a set period of time, depending on local laws. Consult your vet on whether a home quarantine is possible.
- Humane euthanasia. For cats whose rabies vaccination status is not current and who have likely been exposed to infection, humane euthanasia is the most common recommendation from veterinarians. In some cases, if an owner refuses to euthanize—and the health department or animal control allows it—a strict and lengthy quarantine (usually six months or longer) is put into effect.
The typical requirements for home quarantine include:
- Only one or two adults (no children or other pets) should have contact with the cat.
- The cat should be kept in a contained area with no access to the outdoors.
- If any unusual behavior develops, or the cat bites a person or another animal, notify your vet immediately.
An unvaccinated cat bitten by a wild animal, or showing signs of a bite of unknown origin, must be quarantined for a six-month period. Because the incubation period for rabies is usually less than six months (generally 4–6 weeks, but up to six months), the lengthy period is to ensure the cat doesn’t have rabies before being allowed regular contact with people and other animals again.
Is There a Cure for Rabies?
There is no cure for rabies once the symptoms of rabies present themselves. However, a vaccination that is administered immediately after your cat is bitten, before symptoms manifest, can prevent her from contracting rabies.
Is Rabies Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Rabies is transmissible to both humans and other animals through a bite from a rabid animal. Unvaccinated cats, including domestic house cats that are allowed to roam freely outside the home, are at the highest risk for rabies infection.
What Is the Cost for Treating Rabies?
The cost for treating feline rabies varies. Factors to consider:
- Geographic location
- Cost of the vaccine itself
- Cost of the office visit
If you are required to quarantine your cat, you’ll have to pay for each day the cat is confined. Depending on local laws, you may also be fined for failing to vaccinate your cat.
There is no treatment for the rabies virus once symptoms begin to manifest. If you suspect your cat was bitten, consult your vet immediately. Rabies is highly contagious.
If a cat is bitten by a wild animal that cannot be tested, rabies exposure should be presumed.
The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians recommends that any unvaccinated cat exposed to rabies be humanely euthanized immediately. If an owner will not euthanize, the cat must be placed in strict isolation for a period of six months, with no contact with other animals or humans, and be vaccinated a month before the isolation period ends.
If the exposed cat is up-to-date on its rabies vaccination, it should nonetheless be revaccinated immediately and monitored for a period of 45 days.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has strict guidelines to control rabies in the dog population, and the same guidelines apply to cats as well. These guidelines include:
- notification of suspected cases to health authorities
- humane euthanasia of animals with signs of the disease, and those bitten by animals suspected to be rabid
- quarantine to reduce contact between susceptible animals
- immunization programs with continued boosters
- stray-animal control
Once symptoms of rabies are evident, the disease is virtually always fatal, with no possibility of recovery. Any unvaccinated cat bitten by a rabid animal must either be humanely euthanized or closely monitored for a substantial period of time.
To prevent rabies, there are a few different ways you can help protect your cat.
- Schedule regular visits with your vet, make sure your cat is vaccinated, and stay up-to-date on all future rabies vaccinations. States may vary on how often they require cats to be vaccinated against rabies, so always check with your veterinarian to make sure your cat’s vaccines are current.
- If possible, keep your cat indoors and under your supervision. Outdoor cats are at a greater risk of being exposed to wildlife that could be infected with rabies.
- Spay/neuter your cat to help keep the number of unwanted cats to a minimum.
- Contact animal control if you see stray animals wandering around the neighborhood; they may be ill or unvaccinated and a potential threat to your pet.
- Contact animal control if you see any unusually friendly wild animals (particularly raccoons, foxes, or skunks). Lack of fear in typically shy wild animals is often a sign of rabies. As cute as these animals may be, do not touch, pet, or interact with them in any way. Rabbits and rodents (such as squirrels, mice, and rats) rarely contract rabies but can carry other diseases that are contagious to humans, dogs, and cats.
- Do not ever touch or pick up a bat; bats are frequent carriers of rabies. If you find your cat playing with a dead or injured bat, call your veterinarian immediately.
Vaccination is the key to preventing rabies.
The National Rabies Management Program was established by the United States Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services to try to prevent the spread of rabies in wildlife and eventually eliminate terrestrial rabies in the U.S. The program involves the use of oral rabies vaccinations targeting wild animals.
Is There a Vaccine for Rabies?
There is a vaccine for rabies, and in most states it is mandatory for domesticated cats.
Kittens receive the vaccination when they are between 12 and 20 weeks old (the minimum age for rabies vaccination varies from state to state, so always check with your veterinarian). A booster shot is administered one year after the initial vaccination. Additional boosters are given every one to three years after, depending on the brand of vaccine used and your state’s regulations.
While vaccinations have reduced the number of infections in cats, unvaccinated strays pose a rabies threat to other animals and humans.
Vaccination plays a vital role in preventing rabies. Owners should follow a faithful vaccination schedule. Keeping cats indoors at all times is another way to reduce your feline’s risk of rabies.