Rabies in Cats

The rabies virus is easily spread from one pet to the next. For unvaccinated pets, this common virus could mean the difference between life and death. Today, our East Setauket vets talk about the dangers of rabies for cats and how you can help protect your feline friend.

The Dangers of Rabies For Our Cats

Rabies is an extremely contagious virus but it is preventable. This illness attacks the central nervous system of mammals. The disease spreads through bites from infected animals and travels from the site of the bite along the nerves until it reaches the spinal cord, and works its way from there to the brain. As soon as the rabies virus reaches the brain, the infected animal will start to display symptoms and often dies within 7 days.

What are the common factors leading to the spread of rabies?

While common creatures such as raccoons are known for adding to the spread of rabies, your pets can contract this disease both as indoor and outdoor kitties. That said, the most common method of transmission is through the bite of an infected animal.

Rabies spreads through the saliva of infected mammals and is most often transmitted through bites from infected animals. Rabies can also spread if the saliva of an infected animal comes in contact with an open wound or mucous membranes, such as the gums. The more contact your cat has with wild animals, the higher the risk of becoming infected. 

If your cat does happen to have the rabies virus it can spread it to you and the other humans and animals living in your home. People can get rabies when the saliva of an infected animal such as your cat comes into contact with broken skin or mucus membrane. It is possible to get infected with rabies by being scratched but it is very rare and unlikely. If you suspect that you have been in contact with the rabies virus it's critical that you call your doctor immediately so they can provide you with a rabies vaccine to keep the disease from advancing.

What are the signs of rabies in animals?

While there may be some general signs of rabies in animals it can't be diagnosed without laboratory testing. You may however see signs of unusual behavior in animals experiencing rabies such as aggressiveness. Even so, not all infected animals with become vicious as some may remain timid even through advanced infection. This makes it very important to learn to leave all wildlife alone, no matter their age, species or behavior.

The best thing to do anytime you come across a wild animal is to contact the local animal services division and explain what you've found. Some of the typical behaviors to note are:

  • General sickness
  • Problems swallowing
  • Excessive drool or saliva
  • High aggression in an animal
  • An animal that bites at imaginary objects
  • A very calm creature
  • A paralyzed animal
  • A bat that is on the ground

Are rabies in cats common in North America?

Thankfully today rabies isn't common among cats largely thanks to the rabies vaccine, which is mandatory for household pets in most states to help prevent the spread of this deadly illness. However, this virus is now more common in cats than it is in dogs with 241 recorded cases of rabies in cats in 2018. Most often cats get rabies after being bitten by a wild animal, Even if you have an indoor cat they are still at risk for rabies because infected animals such as mice can enter your home and spread the condition to your cat. if you believe your kitty has been bitten by another animal we recommend calling your vet to make sure your feline friend hasn't been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they are vaccinated.

What are the stages of rabies that a cat may go through?

Generally, there are three recognizable stages of the rabies virus in cats, we have listed the stages including the signs and symptoms that accompany each stage:

Prodromal stage - In this stage, a rabid cat will typically exhibit changes in their behavior that differ from their usual personality, if your kitty is usually shy, they could become more outgoing, and vice versa. If you see any behavioral abnormalities in your cat after they have obtained an unknown bite, keep them away from any other pets and family members, and call your vet immediately.

Furious stage - This stage is the most dangerous because it makes your pet nervous and even vicious. They might cry out excessively and experience seizures and stop eating. The virus has gotten to the stage where it has begun attacking the nervous system, and it prevents your cat from being able to swallow, leading to the classic symptom of excessive drooling, known as "foaming at the mouth."

Paralytic stage - This is the final stage in which a rabid cat will go into a coma, and won't be able to breathe. Unfortunately, this is the stage where pets usually pass away. This often takes place about seven days after symptoms first appear, with death usually happening after about 3 days. 

How long does it take for the symptoms of rabies to appear in cats?

If your cat has been exposed to the rabies virus, it won't show any immediate signs or symptoms. The usual incubation period is approximately three to eight weeks, but, it can be anywhere from 10 days to as long as a year.

The speed at which symptoms appear depends entirely on the infection site. A bite that is closer to the spine or brain will develop much faster than others and it also depends on the severity of the bite.

What are the treatment options for rabies in cats?

If your cat starts displaying symptoms of rabies, there is unfortunately nothing you or your vet can do to help them. There is no known cure for rabies and after symptoms start appearing, their health will deteriorate within a few days.

If your pet has had the kitten shots that protect them from rabies, including all required boosters, provide proof of vaccination to your veterinarian. If anyone came into contact with their saliva or was bitten by your pet (yourself included), advise them to contact a physician immediately for treatment. Unfortunately, rabies is always fatal for unvaccinated animals, usually occurring within 7 to 10 days from when the initial symptoms start.

If your cat is diagnosed with rabies you will have to report the case to your local health department. An unvaccinated pet that is bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, or according to local and state regulations. A vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a human, conversely, should be quarantined and monitored for 10 days.

Your pet should be humanely euthanized to ease their suffering and to protect the other people and pets in your home. If your cat dies suddenly of what you suspect to be rabies, your vet may recommend having a sample from the cat’s brain examined. Direct testing of the brain is the only way to diagnose rabies for sure.

The best protection against rabies in cats is to provide them with the appropriate vaccinations that help prevent the disease. Talk to your vet about scheduling an appointment to make sure your pet is up to date with their rabies shots and other vaccinations.

Why is the rabies vaccine still important for indoor cats?

If you have an indoor cat then you may be wondering why? What's the point in having your indoor cat vaccinated? While it might be true that you don't allow your cat outside your home, the potential for escape--or worse, for an infected bat or rodent to break into your home, is a good enough reason to look into routine preventive care for your feline friend.

The outcome of rabies is not worth the risk with death being a common result. The best way to protect your cat is by having them fully vaccinated against the rabies virus.

Did you know that it is the law in most places that your cat needs to be vaccinated, whether indoor or outdoor? When you take your pet to be vaccinated your vet will be sure to issue you with a certificate of vaccination as proof that your feline friend is up to date with their rabies vaccine.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Are you concerned that your cat or dog may have been vaccinated by an infected cat or dog? Contact our East Setauket vets right away to schedule an examination.