Rabies in cats can be fatal, and vaccinating cats against rabies is the law. Learn signs of infection and whether rabies can spread through a cat scratch. 

By Brendan Howard
August 24, 2020
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Whether you continually wonder if your cat has plans to rule the world, whether she regularly stalks the toy you dangle, or whether she studiously ignores the activities around her, you know your cat’s moods and behaviors. Rabies in cats can change those familiar attributes in a flash.

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the brain and spinal cord of mammals, sometimes leading to the frightening “mad dog” aggression depicted in books and films. It’s also a zoonotic disease, which means wildlife, as well as pet cats and dogs, can transmit it to human beings.

Rabid “mad dogs” are mostly history in the United States, thanks to required vaccination and fewer stray dogs. Today, rabies in cats is rare, but cats have overtaken dogs as the most common domestic species to be infected. 

More than 90 percent of reports of rabies in animals to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are wildlife (bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, etc.). Pets who come into contact with wildlife or stray animals are still at risk. 

Vaccination is crucial and also helps protect people from uncomfortable rabies treatment after exposure, says Robin Downing, DVM, MS, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP, and owner of Windsor Veterinary Clinic and the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. The consequences of rabies exposure are unpleasant. For example, a kitten in a city park not far from Windsor bit a woman who was trying to rescue it. “That kitten, its siblings, and its mother were captured, euthanized, and tested positive for rabies,” Downing says. It required post-exposure rabies treatment for the woman and anyone else who came into contact with the kitten. 

If you worry your cat or kitten might have rabies or could catch this fatal disease, get to know the signs of infection, the vaccines that protect cats, and exactly how human beings can get rabies from an infected cat.

How Cats Get Rabies 

Rabies is usually transmitted from the bite of an infected animal. It may also be transmitted through saliva (say, you get some in your mouth) or an open wound. You are unlikely to get rabies from a cat scratch, but it is possible because cats lick their paws. 

Because wildlife are the most common carriers of rabies, house cats who spend some or all of their time outside are at greatest risk. But indoor-only cats aren’t totally safe: Bats, raccoons, and other wild animals get into homes, and indoor cats can escape outside. It’s crucial (and required by law in most places) for your favorite felines to be properly vaccinated.

Unowned or feral cats can also serve as a reservoir host for the rabies virus. Feral cat advocates and veterinarians debate how much unowned cats are an issue in rabies infections. 

It is rare for a cat to be infected with rabies, but the result for unvaccinated cats is dire. That’s why vaccinations and booster vaccinations are required by law.

Signs of Rabies in a Cat 

Rabies doesn’t show up instantly. Rabies in cats has a lengthy incubation period of anywhere from weeks to a year. A cat infected with rabies may have just days to live once the signs start to show up, so it’s essential you keep an eye out for the following common symptoms in an unvaccinated cat.

Sudden Behavioral Changes

Is Kitty acting different? Pay attention to sudden behavior changes, such as loss of appetite, signs of fear or nervousness, more frequent vocalizing, irritability, or excitability. 

Changes in Sociability

A previously friendly cat may seek solitude or a previously aloof cat may become surprisingly affectionate. 

“Mad Dog” Aggression

The aggression of an infected dog, shown in books and movies for years, can show up in cats with rabies as well. Rabid cats can become vicious, scratching or biting for no reason. They can lose a previous fear of people. No telltale sign of rabies is visible in a cat’s eyes although pupils may become dilated if the cat is agitated.

Paralysis

In later stages of the disease, a cat may have seizures and lose control of muscles and the ability to swallow. Eventually, the cat’s throat, jaws, and limbs may become paralyzed, after which death can occur.  

Diagnosis and Treatment of Rabies in Cats

Ultimately, safety should come before diagnosis. Rabies is dangerous to people and fatal to pets. If you suspect your cat has been bitten by a wild animal, put on gloves before handling your cat and immediately call your vet. 

Even if you know the whereabouts of the wild animal that bit your cat, you should not try to handle or capture that animal, especially if it’s behaving strangely (aggressiveness, seizures, or a nocturnal animal out in the daytime). Call animal control as soon as possible and let them handle it by providing as much information as possible.  

Diagnosis of rabies in cats is difficult. Sadly, the only way to test for rabies is analysis of brain tissue from a deceased animal. A veterinarian may be able to use tissue from the potentially infected animal that fought or bit your cat. 

If your cat shows signs of rabies and the other animal has been caught, the veterinarian or local authorities will probably require euthanasia of the wild animal and have its brain tissue examined by a qualified laboratory. 

If the test is positive and your cat is not vaccinated for rabies, it will be strongly recommended that your cat be euthanized as well. There are no treatments to cure an unvaccinated cat with rabies. If you refuse to have your cat euthanized, the cat may be placed in strict isolation, without human or animal contact, for at least four months. He will be vaccinated for rabies prior to release, as long as signs of rabies do not appear during the quarantine.

If the test on the infected animal is positive and your cat has been vaccinated, your cat will need a booster vaccine, and you’ll need to closely observe her for 45 days.

Remember, no treatment will cure rabies in cats. Once signs appear, the disease will be fatal. Humans bitten by an animal suspected or confirmed to have rabies receive wound care, rabies antibody injections at the bite wound, and doses of vaccines over a period of weeks. Proper post-exposure care almost guarantees survival in human beings. Cats aren’t as lucky.

How to Prevent Rabies 

Because there’s no cure for rabies in cats, vaccination is the most important thing you can do to protect Kitty. Indoor or outdoor, young or old—every cat needs to be vaccinated for rabies. Kittens can be vaccinated as early as 12 weeks of age. Because of differences among the brands of feline rabies vaccine on the market, your vet may recommend one or a variety.

Choosing a Rabies Vaccine for Your Cat

The best way to keep your cat safe from rabies is to keep her vaccines up-to-date. With different vaccines administered on different schedules, be sure to find the vaccine option that’s best for you and your cat’s lifestyle and needs. Keep these considerations in mind when choosing a rabies vaccine for your cat:

Vaccine Timing

Some rabies vaccines are administered once a year. Others are administered with a booster after one year, but then further vaccines every three years. Your local laws, manufacturer recommendations, and your veterinarian’s guidance all determine which vaccine will be right for your cat. Downing advocates for the three-year vaccines, even though the initial cost may be more than for a one-year vaccine.

Duration of Rabies Vaccines

“If we use the one-year vaccine, there’s an annual charge,” Downing says. “If we use the three-year vaccine, the actual cost per year is the same. The cat owner simply makes that investment in their cat once every three years.”

Possible Side Effects and Efficacy

Some older vaccines contain “adjuvants,” which can help boost your cat’s immune response to the vaccine. Newer vaccines leave out the adjuvants because a very small number of cats have experienced swelling or growths (feline injection-site sarcoma) at the site where they’ve received older vaccines.

Indoor Cats May Have Lower Risk of Rabies

Cat owners and veterinarians may not all agree on whether domestic cats should be kept strictly indoors, but there is no question that keeping your cat indoors can help protect her from the wild or stray animals outside carrying rabies. “It is far safer for cats to live indoors than to spend time outside,” Downing says. 

Cars, parasites, and wild predators can hurt and kill pet cats. While they may be better off inside, Downing says cat owners need to create enriching indoor environments for their cats. There are many ways to help cats get stimulation and fresh air without being exposed to wild animals and the rabies they can carry, like “catios” (enclosed outdoor spaces) and even cat harnesses for walks together.

No matter how you and your cat decide to explore the world (or the couch!) together, be sure to talk to your vet about keeping your cat up-to-date on her rabies vaccinations. They’ll be able to provide expert advice on keeping her safe and may even have some fun ideas for indoor activities that’ll keep her happy and healthy without risking rabies in the great outdoors.