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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.


One of the many benefits of having an indoor only cat is fewer visits to the veterinarian. Unfortunately, some owners take this too far and think, if my cat stays indoors, I never have to see the vet unless she seems ill.

Preventative care is still very important, even if cats have limited or no exposure to other cats and the great outdoors. Today, let’s look at one aspect of preventative care — vaccination against rabies.

All cats should be current on their rabies vaccines. The only time I modify this recommendation is if a particular individual is so ill that vaccination in general makes no sense or she has had a severe allergic reaction to rabies vaccination in the past. I’m not talking about a little swelling and discomfort at the injection site here, but anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Even then, I only recommend against rabies vaccination if a cat’s risk is extremely low.

For outdoor cats, I would switch to a different type of rabies vaccine, pretreat with medications that reduce the risk of anaphylaxis, and keep the cat in the hospital for a few hours to closely monitor for adverse reactions.

Rabies is simply too serious of a disease to lightly recommend against vaccination. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) received three times more reports of rabid cats than rabid dogs, and indoor cats can be exposed to the virus. Rabid animals behave bizarrely and do enter homes, or, more likely, an indoor cat can escape through an open door or window, bolt out of her owner’s arms or an improperly secured cat carrier, or slip out of a harness and leash.

The consequences for cats are severe even if you ignore the threat from the disease itself. If an unvaccinated pet has potentially come into contact with a rabid animal, the recommendation from the public health authorities will be euthanasia. The only way to avoid this is to agree to a strict quarantine that may last six months, or even longer. If an unvaccinated cat bites a person, a ten day quarantine will be mandated. The specifics of post-exposure rabies control are mandated by local jurisdictions and can vary depending on the prevalence of the disease in the area.

Some types of older rabies vaccines have been associated with an increased risk of a cat developing a deadly type of cancer at the injection site. In the past, this made recommending rabies vaccinations for extremely low risk cats (e.g., those living on the 45th floor of an apartment building) a more thorny call. Newer vaccines are much safer, however, and I believe that the benefits of vaccination now outweigh the risks even for these individuals.

Of course there are reasons other than rabies for healthy indoor cats to be seen by a veterinarian — physical exams, health screens, FVRCP vaccination, dental care and heartworm prevention to name a few. We’ll talk about some of these in future posts, I’m sure.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Pic of the day: Cat in the window by Ernst Vikne

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