Rabies in Cats: What Is It, and What Causes It?

Brittany Kleszynski, DVM
By Brittany Kleszynski, DVM on Jun. 7, 2024
A cat lounges outside.

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In This Article

Summary

What Is Rabies in Cats?

Rabies is a viral disease that causes severe damage to an animal’s nervous system, especially the brain and spinal cord.

Rabies affects all mammals, including cats, and is spread when an infected animal bites another.

Animals with rabies generally have a sudden onset of neurological symptoms, such as lack of coordination, irritability, and nervousness, which quickly progress to paralysis and death.

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can also be transferred from animals to humans.

This infectious disease is a serious public health concern, and most states require pets to be vaccinated against rabies.

Fortunately, rabies is uncommon in pet cats because of widespread vaccination by pet parents.

Rabies is a medical emergency, and cats who have been exposed to the virus or who are displaying symptoms should be brought to a veterinarian immediately.

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for rabies in cats, and once symptoms begin, the disease is fatal.

Symptoms of Rabies in Cats

Rabies can cause the following symptoms in cats:

Cats generally start out experiencing mild symptoms that quickly get much worse.

For example, a cat may first have a reduced appetite and then suddenly become more reactive and uncoordinated.

As the infection progresses, paralysis and death quickly follow.

Causes of Rabies in Cats

Rabies infections are caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family.

Cats become infected after direct contact with another animal who has the virus. The rabid animal spreads the virus through their saliva during a bite.

The virus then multiplies at the site of the bite and travels along the cat’s nerves to the brain and spinal cord, causing significant damage.

Afterward, the virus travels to the cat’s salivary glands, where it is shed in saliva. At this time, the cat can spread rabies if he bites another animal.

Cats allowed outdoors are more likely to be exposed to the rabies virus through potential encounters with infected wildlife or community animals.

Pet parents should keep their cats indoors to reduce this risk and keep their cats safe from potential exposure to the virus.

Unvaccinated cats are at high risk of rabies infection since they lack critical protection against the deadly virus.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Rabies in Cats

To help in diagnosis, a pet parent should share with the veterinarian whether the pet is up to date on the rabies vaccine, when symptoms began, and whether the pet has had any potential or known exposure to another animal, including wildlife.

While a thorough physical exam and history can support a diagnosis of rabies, the only way to be sure of the diagnosis is a postmortem exam of the cat’s brain.

To do this, the cat must be humanely euthanized and sent to a special diagnostic laboratory for testing.

Two tests that can be used to diagnose rabies:

  • Immunofluorescence microscopy: This test involves adding a small sample of brain tissue to a microscope slide and incubating it with special antibodies.

    • If the rabies virus is present, the sample will glow bright green when viewed under a microscope. This is the most commonly used test.

  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): A sample of brain tissue is tested for the rabies virus by analyzing DNA in a specialized machine. 

Treatment of Rabies in Cats

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for rabies in cats. Once symptoms begin, the disease is fatal.

However, if an exposed cat is up to date on the rabies vaccine, another vaccine dose can be given before symptoms begin to try to prevent the infection.

More steps, such as quarantine of the cat, would be based on state law. However, this is not always effective, and some cats may still get the disease.

Unvaccinated cats who are exposed to rabies are typically humanely euthanized to protect the rest of the household and prevent suffering of the infected cat.

Any cat who has been humanely euthanized due to possible rabies infection should be sent to a state diagnostic laboratory for post-mortem testing.

Recovery and Management of Rabies in Cats

This is a fatal disease for most cats, and therefore, recovery is rare.

Whenever a cat has known or potential exposure to rabies, he should be brought into a veterinarian immediately. He should also be quarantined from the rest of the pets in the household to prevent exposure.

However, if other pets have already been exposed to the one with rabies, re-vaccination or euthanasia may be recommended depending on prior vaccine status.

If the cat is unvaccinated, euthanasia is recommended.

If the cat has been vaccinated against rabies, the veterinarian can decide whether re-vaccination is an option based on time since exposure.

However, if symptoms develop at any time in vaccinated cats, humane euthanasia is recommended as well.

Prevention of Rabies in Cats

To prevent rabies, pet parents should ensure they keep their cats up to date on the rabies vaccine.

The vaccine is given to kittens at 16 weeks of age, followed by a booster one year later.

It’s then given every one to three years for the rest of the cat’s life, depending on the type of rabies vaccine used.

Keeping cats indoors is an important way to prevent exposure since cats allowed to go outdoors are more likely to meet other animals, including wildlife, who could be infected with the rabies virus.

Rabies in Cats FAQs

Can you get rabies from cats?

People can get rabies from infected cats through a bite or by getting infected saliva into an open wound or mucous membrane, such as conjunctiva of the eye.

How long do cats with rabies live?

The length of time a cat lives with rabies is highly variable, depending on how much virus was shared and where the bite was on the body.

Some cats die suddenly while others experience a progression of symptoms followed by death seven to 10 days later.

References

Rupprecht C.  Rabies in Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual. Revised August 2023.

References


Brittany Kleszynski, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Brittany Kleszynski, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Brittany Kleszynski is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer who specializes in creating meaningful content that engages readers...


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