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The Daily Vet by petMD

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Rabies is a deadly disease for felines and humans, as well as many other species of animals. Unfortunately, cats are more likely to become infected with rabies than many other species, particularly those cats that live part or all of their lives outdoors. And when a cat becomes infected with rabies, that cat can also expose people and other pets to the disease.

Rabies can be passed to your cat through contact with infected wildlife. Skunks, raccoons, fox, and bats are commonly implicated. Infected domestic animals can also be a source of exposure to your cat. This may include both dogs and cats. Even larger animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs can be infected with rabies.

People can be exposed to rabies in many of the same ways. If your cat becomes infected with rabies, he could expose your family members to the disease. In addition, contact with infected wildlife and other infected domestic animals can be a source of exposure for your family.

How can you protect your cat and your family? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Keep your pets up-to-date on vaccinations. Many communities have laws requiring the vaccination of dogs and cats against rabies.
  2. House your cat indoors. Indoor cats are very rarely exposed to rabies. Outdoor cats can be exposed even without their owner’s knowledge.
  3. Do not attempt to handle stray, homeless, or unsupervised pets. Contact your local animal control facility to handle these animals, if necessary.
  4. Do not attempt to approach or handle wildlife, particularly those species that are likely to carry rabies (skunks, raccoons, foxes, bats, etc.). Be particularly wary of wild animals that are acting in an uncharacteristic manner. For instance, animals that are typically nocturnal by nature may be displaying symptoms of an illness such as rabies when found wandering during daylight hours. Notify your local public health official if such an animal is identified.
  5. Keep garbage cans tightly covered to avoid attracting unwanted wildlife.
  6. Do not feed wild animals or stray pets near your home.
  7. If bitten by an animal of unknown rabies status, clean the wound immediately and thoroughly with soap and water. Contact your physician and/or public health official immediately for further advice.

Remember that the recommendation for an unvaccinated cat that is exposed to rabies is euthanasia. Even if euthanasia can be avoided, quarantine for a period of up to 6 months may be required. Your cat may be removed from your home during the quarantine period to be housed in an approved animal care facility.

Keeping your cat safe from rabies is fortunately fairly easy. Vaccinations against rabies are quite effective. However, in the case of an exposure, even a vaccinated cat may be required to undergo an observation period and/or be revaccinated. Your animal control or public health officer will provide more information in these types of situations. However, you can do yourself and your cat a favor by keeping your cat indoors and up-to-date on vaccinations.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: alexnika / via Shutterstock

Comments  9

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  • 09/24/2012 01:49am

    Bats are the biggest threat in North America. Globally, dogs are the source of infection and over 25,000 children are killed annually by rabies. There's an infographic to share for awareness here: http://allnaturalpetcare.com/blog/2012/09/16/world-rabies-day_awareness-month-infographic/ . You can also visit WorldRabiesDay.org to find out how you can help save lives.

  • Kitties
    09/24/2012 07:14am

    Keeping kitties indoors and vaccinated is, in my opinion, the best solution. However, there's an instance every year or two in my area where it's reported that an infected bat has found its way into a home.

    It's also the law in my area that companion animals be vaccinated.

    I also keep my kitties vaccinated on the remote chance someone might get bitten. I don't want to take a chance on having them put into isolation or euthanized to check for rabies.

  • 09/24/2012 12:09pm

    One summer Legolas chased a bat into our home through the back door off the deck, which is fenced to keep the cats safe. We have our cats vaccinated, even though Legolas had FIV to tolerate as well because there have been incidents in our area. Legolas was the only cat loose at the time, and thankfully he was extremely good when he heard the urgency in my voice and let me deal with ushering the bat back out the door.

    I used a large screen I pulled from one of the windows, that also then allowed an alternate escape route for the bat and tried to herd it out using the screen to protect myself. It appeared to think it was fun to fly up and down through the moving fan blades on the ceiling fan next to the open door and gave me a bit of a hard time with this before it left. Quite frankly it blew me away to watch it moving up and down through the blades of the fan with this game, and I have always wondered if that was what attracted it. We must get a screen for that door!

  • 09/24/2012 01:18pm

    This has to do with not so much about rabies but you mentioned your cat "had" FIV, and as I understand you have other cats. Do you keep them apart?

  • 09/24/2012 03:29pm

    Yes, we did have to keep Legolas separate as in his case seeing another cat within range was like flicking a switch in his brain. It might have been neuron damage as sometimes that can happen with AIDS patients, but we aren't sure. We think it may have caused his FIV contamination to start with as he was so aggressive to other cats. There are different "clades" or varieties of FIV and his may have caused this trait, but it is an unusual one in the English speaking world.

    Normally people don't have to keep FIV+ cats separate, although housing them with other cats reduces life expectancy if there is disease being passed around, which can happen. Legolas's T-cell count did go down year by year, but so slowly that he died of a heart attack when he was mourning the loss of his best buddy the dog. It was nothing to do with his FIV diagnosis.

    Legolas was a delightful lovable cat that we wouldn't have missed experiencing, FIV or no FIV and these cats can live full healthy lives, as he did till the end. He was about the healthiest cat we took in. I would never allow an FIV diagnosis to make a decision on whether to adopt a cat or not.

  • 09/24/2012 07:00pm

    Robin,

    I have to agree with Westcoastsyrinx about keeping FIV+ kitties separated. If they're fighters and biters, they might pose a risk. If they're not, they're fine with being integrated with other kitties.

    I have one FIV+ kitty in my "herd". He's very laid back and no threat to the others.

    FIV is passed through deep bite wounds and Owen was brought in as an unaltered stray (he was neutered before setting up residence indoors), so there's no telling how he was infected. I don't worry at all about him infecting anyone else.

    As an FIV+ kitty, we keep a close eye on anything that might turn into an infection and we're always on top of his dental care.

  • Rabies in feral cats
    09/24/2012 11:29am

    According to Alley Cat Allies:

    "Rabies is not a health risk posed by feral cat colonies, but it sometimes comes up when discussing outdoor cats with community members or policymakers who don’t realize that feral cats are healthy and their home is outdoors. Rabies is often misguidedly used to justify catch and kill plans to remove cats from certain areas, when in fact, feral cats are not a reservoir for rabies, and the virus itself is not nearly the threat it once was."

    For more info, please visit http://www.alleycat.org/page.aspx?pid=685

  • 09/28/2012 09:38pm

    I have to agree with Viki Cook and thank her for quoting Alley Cat Allies. Also what was missing in this article are some statistics about this issue from reliable sources.

    Thanks,

  • 09/26/2012 02:14pm

    It is important to try to do everything to avoid possible exposure to this horrible, fatal disease. Yes, of course, cats and other companion animals need to be vaccinated. But, I, and many others, are having concerns about the issue of over-vaccination. Yes, I know this isn't the subject of this post, but I think it's important to discuss this issue further. What constitutes a cat having immunity to rabies?

    You may know that there is a long-term study going on right now, the Rabies Challenge Fund, that is looking at the duration of immunity of the rabies vaccine. Part of the reason for the study is to show that the rabies vaccines has a much longer DOI than the yearly boosters, which might help extent the legal requirements for rabies boosters.This study is attempting to show the DOI is at least five years or seven years....and DOI may even be lifelong. Dr. Ronald Schultz, one of the most respected researchers in immunology is a big part of this study. I believe he is donating his time for this study. Dr. Schultz, feels most vaccines do provide likely provide lifelong immunity. He only does one or two rounds of properly timed vaccines (very important for kittens to get their vacs at the right time because of the maternal antibodies) for his dogs and cats. He says he only does the rabies according to and because of the law. He does titer his pets, but he says he doesn't re-booster them after that.

    I realize this is a difficult issue, but it's something more and more pet guardians are becoming aware of and it is something important to discuss. My previous feline-only vet didn't discuss anything about vaccines with me and pumped by senior cat (until he was 15) with boosters - even though he had a chronic disease (diabetes). I realize rabies is often required by law; but my state doesn't require it, though municipalities can have their legal requirements.

    Here is a very good with Dr. Ronald Schultz. Long, but worth watching.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1Xd5ghnlJ4

    My state doesn't automatically euthanize a companion animal if it is bitten. They allow a period of quarantine.

    ....."If owner refuses euthanasia of animal:

    1. Advise owner of potential health risks
    2. Strict quarantine for 6 months
    3. Euthanize and test dog/cat/ferret/livestock for
    rabies if it becomes ill, with signs suggestive
    of rabies, or dies during confinement period
    4. Vaccination may be administered at beginning
    of confinement, or at month 5 of confinement
    vaccination."

    Can you or another vet address the issues related to over-vaccination as well?

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