Rabies in Cats

Rabies is one of the most common and preventable deadly diseases among cats in the US. Our La Mesa vets share some information about the spread of rabies in cats, the signs of infection and prevention with routine pet vaccinations.

What is the Rabies Virus?

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.

How Does Rabies Spread Between Cats?

In the U.S. wildlife, such as raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks are the ones most responsible for spreading rabies— but this condition can be found in any mammal. Usually, rabies is found in areas that have high populations of unvaccinated feral cats and dogs. 

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. 

While there have been no known cases of cats transmitting the rabies virus to other cats, cats have the highest volume of reports regarding rabid animals in the US. While they do not transmit to other cats, the virus is present in their saliva and it is possible for a human to present with rabies symptoms after being bitten.

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.

Are rabies infections common among domestic cats?

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. While the rates are dropping, rabies still affects cats more than dogs. Cats are typically infected when they are bitten by infected animals that they interact with outside. But did you know that your cat might also be infected even if they never leave the house? Animals can make their way into your home when you least expect it and can carry all types of diseases including rabies with them. 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 up to date with their cat vaccinations.

What are the symptoms of a rabies infection in cats?

There are three main stages to a rabies infection. Our vets have listed the stages of rabies in cats below, 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 differs 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 after infection do the symptoms of rabies appear?

Cats that have been infected with rabies (including ones that have received their pet vaccinations) will not begin to show symptoms until the late stages of infection. 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 cats with rabies?

Once a cat has shown the signs of being infected with rabies, there will be no options as rabies has no cure. This is one of the reasons why dog and cat vaccinations La Mesa are so important. There is no known cure for rabies and after symptoms start appearing,  it may take as little as a few days for your cat to begin to show symptoms.

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 pet vaccinations that help prevent the disease. Speak with your vet to schedule your pet for routine rabies shots and other cat and dog vaccinations. 

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.

If your cat is showing the signs of a rabies infection please quarantine them and contact our La Mesa vets right away.