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What Is Rabies in Cats?

Rabies is a viral disease that is nearly always fatal in affected animals, including cats. The good news is that you can prevent rabies in your cat with a simple vaccine. It’s always a good idea to ensure your cats are current on their vaccinations.  

Rabies acts by attacking the central nervous system (CNS), spreading through the nervous system until it reaches the brain. Infected animals experience paralysis that inevitably involves the respiratory system and leads to death.  

Rabies can affect any mammal, including humans. Animals that host and spread viruses like rabies are known as reservoirs for the disease. Host reservoirs for rabies include skunks, weasels, and bats. Cats are relatively resistant to the dog rabies variant, but are not considered a reservoir species for the virus. 

Symptoms of Cat Rabies

Early symptoms of rabies may be gradual and hard to spot. During the first 2-4 days of infection, your cat may have a fever, less energy than usual, and decreased appetite. Symptoms tend to progress quickly to weakness or paralysis of the legs, seizures, difficulty breathing, hypersalivation (too much saliva) due to difficulty swallowing, and abnormal behavior. Changes in behavior can range from extreme aggression to extreme depression or coma. 

Classical rabies has two forms, paralytic and furious. Cats may show signs of either or both. If the furious phase develops, cats can become aggressive and occasionally delusional. They may seem to hallucinate and attack their surroundings with no trigger. The paralytic phase may also occur, in which patients start to develop paralysis of various muscular systems, and often lose the ability to swallow. This leads to hypersalivation and foaming at the mouth—which some people consider to be a classical sign of rabies virus infection. 

Eventually, coma and death occur after paralysis or prolonged seizure activity. 

Causes of Rabies in Cats

The most common way for a cat to become infected is through a bite from an infected animal where the virus is transmitted by the saliva. Rarely, the saliva or nerve tissue of an infected animal can contaminate a cat’s open wound or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth, leading to transmission of the virus without a bite occurring.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Rabies in Cats

There is no way to definitively diagnose rabies in a living animal, so it’s essential to observe the signs and accurately interpret symptoms. If a vet suspects rabies based on the cat’s symptoms, a diagnosis can be made by testing the brain tissue after the cat has died. The brain tissue is examined using a method called direct fluorescent antibody testing.

Treatment for Rabies in Cats

There is no treatment for rabies in cats, and humane euthanasia is recommended if the disease is strongly suspected. For this reason, it is critical to keep your cat up to date on their rabies vaccine to ensure their health and safety should they become exposed to this disease.

Recovery and Management of Rabies in Cats

Rabies is almost 100% fatal, and there is no hope of recovery or long-term management of the disease once a cat has been infected and has started to show symptoms. It’s critical to take the cat to an emergency vet once symptoms appear or if you suspect a rabies infection.

Rabies in Cats FAQs

Can you test for rabies in cats?

Yes, but the testing can only be done after death. This is because brain matter is required for accurate diagnosis of the disease, using a method called direct fluorescent antibody testing.

What should I do if my cat has been bitten by a rabid animal?

If you suspect that your cat has been exposed to rabies, take them to an emergency vet immediately. Cats that have been vaccinated against rabies can be revaccinated as a preventive measure.

How common is rabies in cats?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that more than 250 cats in the United States are infected with rabies each year.

How long does it take to see signs of rabies in cats?

The amount of time between infection and the onset of rabies symptoms is called the incubation period. This ranges from 2-24 weeks, with an average of 4-6 weeks. The length of time depends on how much virus was injected by the bite, how close the bite is to the brain, and whether the cat has been vaccinated.

What are the first signs of rabies in cats?

The first signs are changes in behavior, when a cat acts in different ways than they would normally—they can become more outgoing, more reclusive, more aggressive, or mentally dull.

Is there rabies virus in a cat scratch?

Rabies is usually transmitted through the saliva, so it is unlikely that rabies could be transmitted through the scratch of an infected cat. Any minimal possibility of spread through a scratch is because scratching is often associated with hissing and biting, which can aerosolize and transmit the virus to another individual.

Does the rabies vaccine prevent a cat from getting rabies?

The rabies vaccine can prevent rabies infection. It is considered a core vaccine (one that all cats should receive) and can be administered to a kitten starting at 12 weeks of age. A booster vaccine should then be given in 1 year, and every 1-3 years after.

How long can a cat live if it has rabies?

Most cats will die within 10 days of acquiring rabies.

References

  1. Veterinary Information Network. Vincyclopedia. Rabies (Zoonotic). 

  1. Greene CE. Rabies and Other Lyssavirus Infections. Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Elsevier; 2012:179-197. 

  1. Weese JS, Fulford MB. Viral Diseases. Companion Animal Zoonoses. Wiley-Blackwell; 2011:257-268. 

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Animals and Rabies. 

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