Each year, close to 60,000 people die of rabies infection. Although most of these infections and deaths are in Asia and Africa, it illustrates how careful we need to be about rabies transmission from pets to humans. The risk of death, while small in the US, is still very real and not something to be ignored. This is why staying current on your cat's rabies vaccinations is so important. Not only are you protecting your cat from a fatal disease, but also your whole family. In many states, vaccination of cats against rabies is mandatory. While we often associate rabies with dog bites, in the US, cats are more likely to contract rabies and potentially pass the disease onto others.
Reports of rabies have been documented from as early as 2000 BC, but the definition of rabies and how we treat it today can still be confusing. Read on to learn the answers to some of the questions you may have around rabies disease, infection, and treatment in cats.
What is rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease that spreads through biting or infected saliva entering open wounds or mucous membranes. The viral infection attacks the nervous system and travels through the nerves to the brain. Rabies has a very high fatality rate and once the viral particles are present in the brain, death usually occurs within a week.
Signs of rabies
Once the infection is present in the brain, symptoms of rabies may be observed by a pet parent, but might take a few days to be noticed. Cats are most commonly infected by another rabid animal, often a wild one. Examples of animals most likely to carry the infection in the US include bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes.
The first sign you may notice before the classic symptoms of rabies occur is a visible bite wound on your cat. Bite wounds appear as small puncture wounds, often on the head, legs, or tail. There may be hair loss, scabs, or a wet discharge present. If you notice your cat has been bitten, a veterinary exam is needed for further investigation.
Once a rabies infection sets in, there are obvious signs of the disease that can be observed:
- Excess salivation
- Changes to the sound of your cat's meow
- Behavior changes:
A cat that is usually friendly can become aggressive and not want to interact with you
Hiding or avoiding human interaction
A cat that is not usually fond of petting or other human contact can suddenly change and become very affectionate
- Paralysis in the hindlimbs or whole body
What happens if the veterinarian thinks my cat has rabies?
While currently there is no cure for rabies infection in cats, your veterinarian can still advise you based on your cat's individual situation.
There are three possible scenarios that could occur:
Your cat has just been bitten (within 1-3 days)
If your cat has been bitten and you are unsure as to the vaccination status of the animal who bit your cat, it will be necessary to have your cat seen by a veterinarian right away.
Your veterinarian will clean your cat's wounds as best as possible using protective equipment and sedation if needed. You should never attempt to do this yourself due to the high risk to your health.
The next step is increasing your cat's rabies vaccine protection with a booster shot. One or more booster shots may be necessary, depending on the situation.
Your veterinarian will recommend complete isolation from humans and other animals, ideally in a quarantine facility, for a minimum of 10 days. You may be able to isolate your cat at home if you can ensure that they will not have access to the outside world or come into contact with any other humans or pets.
If your cat is unvaccinated against rabies, the isolation time can be up to six months in a specialized facility. This is because it can take this long for signs to show.
If signs of rabies do begin to show, sadly the kindest thing for your cat is humane euthanasia. If no signs of rabies develop, your cat has had a very lucky escape and is free to go back to living their normal life.
Your cat is showing signs of rabies infection
If your cat is showing active signs of rabies, such as excess salivation, tremors, or paralysis, your veterinarian will recommend euthanasia as the most humane option. Rabies affects the nervous system and is a painful disease. Rabies can lead to suffering and discomfort, as well as the loss of bodily functions. Unfortunately, it is likely that you will not be able to be present if your veterinarian needs to perform euthanasia and you will not be able to take your cat’s body home for burial.
Your cat has bitten another person or animal
If your cat has bitten another person or cat, even if they are completely symptom-free, you may have to keep your cat isolated for ten days to monitor for signs of rabies. This is because, on the very small chance your cat does have an active rabies infection, they could bite more people or animals, thus spreading the infection further. If after ten days, no symptoms are seen, your cat can go back to their normal life.
In all three of the scenarios discussed above, any suspected rabies cases will automatically be reported to the health authorities, who will check that the best course of action to contain the rabies threat is being followed.
What can I do to protect my cat from rabies?
Vaccinating your cat against rabies is the single best thing you can do to protect them. In many states, vaccinating your cat against rabies is mandatory, so if you have recently moved, it’s always worth checking with your veterinarian for advice.
Some of our top tips to protect your cat against rabies infection are:
Keep your cat as an indoor-only cat with no access to the outside world, unless in a secure ‘catio’ on your property. Only use the catio with human supervision and check the fences before letting your cat out
Neuter your pet to reduce the natural urge to roam to find a mate
Report stray cats or dogs in your area to animal control
Check your cat daily for signs of ill health or bite wounds
- Do not touch dead wild animals, in particular skunks, raccoons, bats, and foxes
What is the vaccination schedule for rabies in cats?
Cats need a rabies vaccine around 4 months of age. The rabies vaccine is then boosted exactly one year later. After this, the vaccine can be given annually or triennially, depending on your veterinarian’s preference or your state’s recommendations. Always ask a veterinarian if you are unsure if your cat is overdue for vaccinations. Cats also need protection against other diseases through vaccination - read our blog post about cat vaccines to learn more.
How is rabies disease confirmed in cats?
Sadly, the only way to be 100% sure that your cat has a rabies infection is by a post-mortem (after death) examination of brain samples at the laboratory.
There is no conclusive test currently available to diagnose rabies in living cats, so veterinarians often rely on the combination of clinical signs and a history of being bitten to make an educated guess that your cat may have rabies or be at risk of infection.
Can a rabies infection in my cat be treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies infections in cats. If your cat has just been bitten, it may be possible to try vaccination as a preventative. Sadly, the most common recommendation is euthanasia as the most humane option.
What should I do if my cat gets bitten by a domestic animal such as a neighbor’s dog or cat?
You should ask the owner if their animal has been vaccinated against rabies and when the pet’s last vaccine was given. You should then call your veterinarian for advice.
I have been bitten by a cat, what should I do?
If you have been bitten by a cat, you should go to your nearest emergency department or medical facility right away. Cat bites carry the risk of zoonotic infection, such as rabies, which can be life-threatening. Cat bites transfer bacteria into your skin and as a minimum, a course of antibiotics will be needed, but sometimes also surgical debridement.
Do all countries require vaccination against rabies?
Some countries are fortunate enough to not have rabies present and they do not require regular preventative vaccinations. If emigrating with your cat you will need to check the requirements before traveling. You will need proof of vaccination against rabies before entry, as well as to adhere to a quarantine period before entering the country.
How much is rabies vaccination?
Costs vary, depending on your state, but usually start at around $20 for the rabies vaccine alone.
Rabies is a highly contagious, often fatal disease that is preventable with vaccination and good safety measures at home. If you are at all concerned that your cat may have come into contact with a rabies-infected animal of any sort, you should contact a veterinarian immediately, regardless of the time of day or night.
Remember that rabies is contagious to humans and fatalities in the US and across the globe every year. Handling an animal suspected of rabies infection should be done with the utmost care.
Keep human contact to a minimum, using the fewest number of people possible to successfully restrain your pet in a secure crate. Children should never be allowed to come into contact with any animal suspected of a rabies infection.
Thankfully, with compulsory vaccination mandates, and higher commitment from pet owners to protect their cats, the incidence of rabies infections in cats and humans in the US is decreasing.
Do you still have questions about your cat’s vaccination schedule or suspect he or she may have been exposed to rabies? Schedule a video consultation today.