Rabies is a deadly, very contagious virus that can infect pets, including cats. In this post, our vets in Tucson explain the effect the rabies virus can have on cats, including how common it is, its symptoms, and how to prevent it.
This extremely contagious virus impacts mammals' central nervous systems. The disease spreads via bites from infected animals and travels from the site the bite has occurred along the nerves until it makes its way to the spinal cord, then to the brain. As soon as the rabies virus infects the brain, the affected animal will begin to display symptoms and will often die within 7 days. Fortunately, rabies is preventable.
Causes of Rabies in Cats
Wildlife in the United States such as foxes, skunks, bats, and raccoons are most responsible for spreading rabies. However, any mammal can contract the disease. Typically, rabies is found in areas with high populations of unvaccinated feral dogs and cats.
Rabies spreads through the saliva of mammals infected with the virus and is most often transmitted via bites from infected animals. That said, an infected animal may have also come into contact with an open wound or mucus membranes such as the gums. The more interaction and contact your cat has with wild animals, the higher its risk of becoming infected.
If your cat does have the rabies virus, it can potentially spread it to you and other humans and animals in your household. People can contract rabies when an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with broken skin or mucus membranes. While it's possible to become infected with rabies from a cat's scratch, it's very rare and unlikely. If you suspect you have been in contact with an animal that has the rabies virus, it's critical to call your doctor immediately so they can administer the rabies vaccine to prevent the disease from advancing.
How Common Rabies Is in Cats
Fortunately, rabies isn't common among cats these days, largely due to the rabies vaccine that's mandatory for household pets in most states. The vaccine has helped to prevent this deadly virus from spreading. However, the virus is more common in cats than in dogs. Most often, cats contract rabies after being bitten by a wild animal. Even if your cat stays indoors most of the time, they are still at risk for rabies because infected animals such as mice can get into your home and spread the disease to your cat.
If you think your four-legged companion may have been bitten by another animal, we recommend contacting your vet to confirm your cat hasn't been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they are vaccinated.
Signs of Rabies in Cats
Generally, cats that have contracted rabies will go through three recognizable stages of the virus. Here are the signs and symptoms of rabies in a cat, which occur in each stage:
Prodromal stage - In this stage, a cat with rabies 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 7 days after symptoms first appear, with death usually happening after about 3 days.
How Long Symptoms of Rabies Take to Show
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.
Treating 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.
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.