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There's a good reason why even the thought of a rabid cat strikes fear in the heart of pet guardians everywhere. Rabies is highly contagious, and once signs of rabies in cats develop, the disease is almost always fatal.
While rabies is a real threat in many locales, you can minimize the risk of this lethal disease by vaccinating your cat and keeping them indoors. Additionally, here are answers to seven common questions about rabies so you can be better equipped to keep your cat safe.
1. What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a completely preventable disease that's caused by a virus, which works by attacking the brain and spinal cord of mammals. Cases of rabies have been reported in every state in the United States except for Hawaii, which has strict quarantine rules to keep the virus off the islands. Worldwide, rabies is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 59,000 humans each year, according to the CDC.
In the U.S., rabies is often harbored by wild carnivores, such as raccoons, bats, foxes and skunks — but it can be seen in any mammal. Rabies is reported more often in areas with large numbers of unvaccinated feral cats or dogs. Cats are the domestic species most commonly reported with the disease in the U.S.
2. How Is Rabies Transmitted?
Rabies is most commonly transmitted through the bite of a rabid cat or any mammal that has contracted the virus. The saliva of infected mammals is contagious. Rabies can also be transmitted if the saliva of an infected animal comes in contact with an open wound or mucous membranes, such as gums.
3. What Are the Signs of Rabies?
There are usually three distinctive stages with rabies in cats. The first one is called the prodromal stage. In this stage, a rabid cat will usually exhibit changes in behavior that aren't typical for their personality: A shy cat can become outgoing, an outgoing cat can become shy, and so on.
The second is called the furious stage — the most dangerous phase in a rabid cat. In this stage, a rabid cat may become nervous and vicious. They may also excessively cry out and experience seizures and a loss of appetite. At this point, the virus is attacking the nervous system and prevents them from swallowing, leading to the classic sign of excessive drooling or foaming at the mouth.
The third is the paralytic stage, in which a rabid cat will go into a coma, be unable to breathe, and unfortunately, most often pass. This stage usually occurs about seven days after signs have started, with death often occurring around day 10.
4. How Long Will It Take for a Cat to Show Signs of Rabies?
After exposure to rabies, a cat will not immediately show signs. In fact, the time it takes for symptoms to present usually varies from three to eight weeks; however, it can be as short as 10 days and as long as a year.
The rate at which signs manifest depends on the site of infection (the closer the bite was to the brain and spinal cord, the faster symptoms will develop), if the virus was present in the saliva of the infected animal at the time of the bite (it isn't always present), and how severe the bite is.
5. How Is Rabies Diagnosed?
Rabies can only be diagnosed by testing the brain tissue of a deceased mammal. If an animal that dies or is euthanized is suspected to have rabies, a veterinarian will remove the brain and conduct a direct antibody test for rabies.
6. How Can Rabies Be Prevented?
Rabies can easily be prevented in cats through routine vaccination and keeping them indoors. In most states, rabies vaccination is required by law for all cats.
After the first administration, your cat will receive the vaccine again a year later, and after that, once every three years. You will receive a rabies tag and certificate with the vaccination — keep this because you will need it to register your cat.
7. What If My Cat Is Exposed to Rabies?
If you think a wild animal or your cat has rabies, do not approach them. Protect yourself. Call your local animal control division to get recommendations. Most likely, animal control will come get the animal and advise you on the best next steps.
While the easiest way to protect your cat is to keep them indoors, some cats like to make a break for it every now and then. If you have a backyard, create a protected enclosure for them to roam safely in. And if you do let your cat outside, consider keeping them on a leash.
While there is no cure once the signs of rabies in cats develop, you can take measures to prevent this disease from affecting your pet.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.