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Home > Cats > Rabies in Cats: Vet-Reviewed Symptoms, Causes & Care Guide

Rabies in Cats: Vet-Reviewed Symptoms, Causes & Care Guide

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Veterinarian, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Rabies is a deadly viral disease that can infect warm-blooded animals, including humans. For cat owners, rabies is a possibility, and getting your cat vaccinated is one of the most important things you can do for your cat, especially if your cat roams around outside. Although rare in the United States due to vaccines, it can still happen, and you want to avoid it at all costs.

Rabies is found all over the world and includes North America, Central America, South America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and some parts of Europe. However, rabies is not found in certain parts of the world, including Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Antarctica, some regions of the Pacific Islands, and parts of Scandinavia. In this article, we’ll look more in-depth into rabies in cats and what you can do to protect your feline fur baby.

divider-cat What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the brain and ultimately ends in death. The disease affects the central nervous system and is transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. According to the CDC, most cases reported yearly stem from skunks, bats, raccoons, and foxes, although it can affect any mammal that is bitten by an infected animal, including humans.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dogs make up 99% of cases reported in humans worldwide, making rabies vaccinations necessary for dogs and cats. In fact, most states require rabies vaccines by law. In the US- 7 out of 10 fatal human cases are from bats, but this doesn’t mean cats cannot transmit the disease, as well.

We should note that rabies infection in domesticated animals is rare, and as of 2018 (the most recent data), there were only 241 cases in cats. The CDC indicates more than 250 cats are infected in the United States each year. Indoor cats are much less likely to contract rabies; nonetheless, having your cat vaccinated is vital and, as we’ve stated, most likely required by law, depending on where you live.

As far as animals, bats are the most common culprits of transmitting the disease to humans in the United States. Never touch a bat, as the infection spreads from the saliva of the infected animal. There is no cure for rabies, and if you have been in contact with a bat, whether you were bitten or not, consult your physician immediately.

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Image Credit: Fang_Y_M, Pixabay

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What Are the Causes of Rabies?

Simply put, rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal, usually from a bite, but an infection can occur if the saliva comes in direct contact with a scratch, an open wound, or enters the eyes or mouth, although this type of infection is rare.

The rabies virus belongs to the order mononegavirales, a non-segmented, bullet-shaped, and single-stranded negative-sense RNA virus that affects the central nervous system. There are two forms: encephalitic and paralytic. Rabies in cats goes through three different stages: prodromal, furious rabies, and the paralytic stage. In the prodromal stage, an infected cat’s temperament will change; a quiet cat will become aggressive and agitated, while an outgoing cat may become shy and nervous.

The furious stage of the encephalitic form follows and is the most common in cats. The furious stage is also the most dangerous to other animals and humans, as the cat will become viscous, nervous, and irritable. The cat will drool excessively and have difficulty swallowing.

In the paralytic or “dumb” form of rabies the animals cannot open and close their mouths and salivate profusely, they rarely attack and are instead withdrawn.

Finally, the virus reaches the paralytic stage, where the cat will become comatose and die. Cats will also have dilated pupils throughout all three stages of the infection.

Where Are the Signs of Rabies?

Once signs and symptoms arise, death is inevitable, making it imperative to seek medical treatment if bitten or even exposed to an animal with rabies. Once infected, the virus makes its way to the brain, and that is when symptoms appear, known as the incubation period. The incubation period is usually between 20–90 days in humans. In animals, the incubation period varies between 10 days to 1 year.

In cats, symptoms can appear anywhere from 4–8 weeks. The first symptoms may be hard to notice within the first 2–4 days, but the obvious signs in cats are lethargy, appetite loss, and a fever. Symptoms in cats can progress fast, and below, you’ll find a run-down of signs and symptoms in cats.

  • Fever
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Hyperactivity
  • Lethargy
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drooling/excessive salivation
  • Paralysis of the legs
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Coma

The incubation period varies depending on where the bite occurred. Usually, the farther from the brain, the longer the incubation period will be, and the closer to the brain, the shorter the incubation period. Remember that symptoms occur once the virus has entered the central nervous system and into the nervous tissue. Another factor that plays a role in the incubation period is how much of the virus was injected and the severity of the bite.

vet hecking bengal cat
Image Credit: Pressmaster, Shutterstock

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What Are the Potential Dangers of Rabies?

As you can see, rabies is a deadly virus that will end in death. However, it is preventable through vaccines administered by your veterinarian. If you suspect a cat, dog, or any other animal with possible rabies bit you, it’s imperative to see a medical professional. If bitten, you will receive a four-dose course of shots. Without these shots, death is inevitable.

When traveling to places where rabies is active, it’s important to avoid wild animals and be aware of your surroundings. Avoid petting stray animals, as infected animals may show no signs initially after infection. If you happen to get bit, wash the area with soap and water thoroughly then seek medical attention.

Pre-travel vaccines for rabies are available, and it’s a smart move as a precaution in case you are traveling to an area where rabies may be present. The shots are given in a series of two within seven days of the first shot. It’s advised to get two booster shots in case you were bitten by a possibly infected animal.

Frequently Asked Questions: Cat Rabies FAQs

Can I Test My Cat for Rabies?

Unfortunately, the only way to check for rabies is by examining the brain, and this can only be done once the infected animal is deceased. Brain matter has to be examined using a method called direct fluorescent antibody testing. You must quarantine your cat to prevent injury and possible infection to other animals and humans if your vet suspects your cat has rabies.

What Should I Do if My Cat Was Bitten by an Infected Animal?

You should take your cat to a veterinary emergency room if your cat is bitten by an infected animal. Even if your cat has already had its rabies vaccines, a booster can be administered as a precaution.

What Are the First Signs of Rabies Infection in Cats?

The first noticeable sign will be a change in your cat’s behavior. The behavior depends on your cat’s normal temperament; reclusive cats will become more outgoing and agitated, and extroverted cats will become more reclusive and aggressive.

Veterinarian at vet clinic giving injection to cat
Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock

How Long Before Symptoms Occur in Cats?

The incubation period in cats ranges from 2 to 24 weeks and averages around 4 to 6 weeks. Certain factors play a role in how fast the disease progresses, such as how close the bite is to the brain, the amount of the virus that was injected, and whether or not your cat has already been vaccinated.

divider-cat Conclusion

Rabies is a devastating disease that is virtually 100% fatal once symptoms arise. Ensure you vaccinate your cat from rabies, and if you live in an area with wildlife, such as foxes, raccoons, bats, and skunks, it may be wise to prevent your cat from roaming freely outdoors. Look for any possible signs and symptoms if you suspect your cat has been bitten by a possibly infected animal, and seek medical attention immediately.


Featured Image Credit: pixbull, Shutterstock

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