What You Need to Know About Rabies Vaccines for Cats

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Published: June 06, 2019

Rabies is a viral disease typically found in wild animals—most commonly raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. However, any mammal can become infected if they are exposed. That is why it is essential that we keep our pets protected with consistent rabies vaccines.

Both indoor and outdoor cats are at risk for contracting rabies. Here’s what you need to know about the rabies vaccine for cats, including the schedule, side effects and cost.

How Is Rabies Transmitted?

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of the infected animal, so sustaining bites from infected wildlife is the most common way to contract it. There have been cases of non-bite exposures, where scratches, abrasions or opens wounds are contaminated with infected saliva, but these are rare.

Why Is the Rabies Vaccine for Cats So Important? 

The rabies virus is a very severe disease, which is predominantly fatal for unvaccinated pets. It is also important to know that many states REQUIRE the euthanasia of unvaccinated animals exposed to potentially rabid animals.

Euthanasia is required because it is impossible to diagnose rabies in living animals. The tests for diagnosing rabies require brain tissue samples from two parts of the brain that can only be extracted during a postmortem procedure.

Once rabies symptoms set in, the disease is nearly always fatal in animals, and treatment options are typically supportive. That is why prevention methods like the rabies vaccines are essential.

These are also the reasons why most states and local governments in the United States require the vaccination of dogs and cats by law. 

These laws vary by region, so I would recommend contacting your veterinarian or local health department for additional information about the requirements and recommendations.

Do Indoor Cats Need a Rabies Vaccine, Too?

I have heard many pet parents say, “But my cat is indoors only,” when I bring up vaccinating their cat, particularly against rabies. It is very important that ALL cats be vaccinated against rabies, including cats that never go outdoors.

While you may keep your cat indoors, that doesn’t mean that they can’t ever escape or that wildlife can’t ever find its way into your home.

Bats frequently sneak inside homes—coming down chimneys or exploring attics. Bats are also known to trigger the hunting instinct in cats, which means your cat is more likely to chase and attempt to catch or play with a bat. Racoons are also known to make their way into your attic.

To ensure your cat is never at risk for rabies, the best decision you can make is to get them vaccinated against rabies.

How Often Do Cats Need to Get a Rabies Vaccine?

There are a number of different brands of rabies vaccines for cats available on the market, and each brand comes with manufacturer guidelines that must be adhered to by the administering veterinarian.

The major differences between feline rabies vaccines are whether they contain an adjuvant or not. 

Older vaccines contained materials called adjuvants, which act to boost the immune response to the vaccine. These vaccines worked very well to prevent disease, but in a very small numbers of cats, they were linked to the development of both local reactions (such as swellings) and much more serious problems, like growths at the site of the vaccine.

Most veterinarians have now changed to the non-adjuvanted form of the rabies vaccine for cats. Originally, this vaccine was only released as a one-year vaccine. That meant that starting at the age of 12 weeks, a cat would need to receive the vaccine annually to ensure protection from the disease.

Recently, however, a non-adjuvanted three-year vaccine has been made available to veterinarians. This vaccine is only given once every three years after the initial one-year booster.

It is relatively expensive, so many veterinarians still prefer to use the annual form of the non-adjuvanted vaccine.

What Are the Side Effects of Rabies Vaccines in Cats? 

Fortunately, reactions to vaccines are very uncommon in cats. In fact, side effects of rabies vaccines in cats are very rare. When they do happen, they include slight fever, lethargy, decreased appetite and a localized swelling at the vaccine site.

These rabies vaccine side effects usually disappear within a few days. 

In extremely rare cases, cats may develop an allergic reaction to the vaccine, which includes hives, swelling of the face and itchiness.

Severe reaction can include weakness and collapse. Keep in mind that these reactions are extremely rare; allergic reactions occur in fewer than 10 cats out of each 10,000 cats vaccinated.

How Much Does a Cat Rabies Vaccine Cost?

Cat rabies vaccine costs will vary tremendously depending on the vaccine used by your veterinarian.  Non-adjuvanted vaccines are significantly more expensive than adjuvanted vaccines, and the three-year form is more expensive than the one-year form. 

Some veterinarians will choose to “eat” the extra cost rather than pass it along to their clients because they feel that the non-adjuvanted vaccine is simply “better medicine.” Other practices, particularly those that vaccinate a lot of cats, are unable to absorb this extra cost and must pass it along.

The cost of the procedure also depends on whether the vaccine is administered in an office visit by the veterinarian or at a vaccine clinic. Be aware that, as a rule, vaccines that are inexpensive are most likely adjuvanted vaccines.

If the choice is between an inexpensive adjuvanted vaccine or nothing, I strongly recommend choosing the adjuvanted vaccine. 

However, if your veterinarian offers the non-adjuvanted vaccine, and you are able to afford it, that is the preferred choice for most cats, regardless of whether it is the one- or three-year form.

So, in short, rabies vaccines for cats are very important, regardless of whether your cat goes outside or not. It is important for the health of your pet as well as for you! 

So call your veterinarian, dig that cat carrier out of the basement, and head in for a rabies vaccine today.

By: Dr. Sandra Mitchell, DVM

Featured Image: iStock.com/StockImages_AT

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