Most people think of rabies as a dog problem, but more cats than canines are reported to have the disease every year in the U.S.
tabby cat at the vet getting their rabies vaccine
Credit: demaerr / Getty

More than 250 cats are reported to have rabies every year in the United States. While this may seem like a small amount when compared to the total cat population, which numbers in the tens of millions, it's not insignificant. That's because rabies is the deadliest infectious disease in the world. Once the signs of infection appear, there is no treatment. Moreover, the rabies virus is zoonotic, meaning it can be passed from animals to people. And it's just as deadly in humans as it is in cats.

There isn't a cure for rabies in cats, but there is a widely available and highly effective tool at your disposal that can protect your beloved pet: the rabies vaccine.

How Is Rabies Transmitted?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, causing deadly inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most pets get rabies from interacting with wildlife like raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes.

The rabies virus is present in the saliva of infectious animals, and transmission typically occurs when a cat is bitten by one of these animals. Though rare, the virus can also be transmitted when infectious saliva comes into direct contact with a scratch or open wound or with a mucous membrane (e.g. eyes, nose, mouth). The CDC notes that contact with the blood, urine, or feces of an infectious animal is not a cause for concern.

Once the rabies virus enters a cat's body, it travels through the nerves to the brain. This process, known as the incubation period, typically takes anywhere from two weeks to around five months, says Brandi Whittemore, DVM, of Hancock Veterinary Services in Pineville, Mo., though it can be longer or shorter. Cats don't show any clinical signs during the incubation period. These usually begin once the virus reaches the brain and begins multiplying. It's also at this point that the virus moves into the salivary glands, producing infectious saliva.

Why the Rabies Vaccine is Important for Cats

Rabies cannot be cured, but it can be prevented. And protecting cats from rabies isn't just a matter of pet health. Because the disease can pass from cats to people, there are huge implications for human health, too. That's why Whittemore considers the rabies vaccine to be the most important vaccination a cat can receive.

Every year, the rabies virus kills nearly 60,000 people around the world, and most of its victims are children. The disease is only rare in the United States thanks to the prevalence of vaccinated pets, says Whittemore. When you vaccinate your cat, you are part of a global initiative to reduce the number of rabies deaths to zero.

Luke Gamble, BVetMed, plays a part in this initiative as well. As the founder and CEO of Mission Rabies, a nonprofit that runs vaccination and education programs in rabies hotspots like India and Malawi, he's seen the suffering that rabies can cause firsthand and describes the vaccine as the safest and most effective way to protect both pets and people. "By keeping your pets up to date on their rabies vaccination, you can help prevent them from acquiring the disease from wildlife or other unvaccinated pets, and in so doing, prevent possible transmission to your family or other people," says Gamble. "Even in the U.S. where human rabies cases are rare, we must all take action to prevent disease outbreaks."

It's also important to note that if your cat has never been vaccinated and is suspected to have come in contact with rabies, the CDC recommends immediate euthanasia. The only other option is to place the cat in strict quarantine with no direct human or animal contact for four months, but it is unlikely the cat will recover.

Rabies Vaccine Schedule for Cats

The threat of rabies is so serious to both pets and people that in most states you're legally required to vaccinate your kitten between 12 and 16 weeks of age with a booster shot a year later, says Whittemore. You can learn what's required in your area by asking your veterinarian or by contacting your local health department.

How often your cat is given subsequent booster shots may also be decided by local laws. There are two options: a 1-year shot and a 3-year shot. According to Whittemore, the difference between the two vaccines essentially comes down to labeling as the components are the same.

If your cat comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal, your veterinarian may give your pet an extra vaccination—even if your cat is up to date—just to be safe. And while no vaccine is 100-percent effective, the rabies vaccine is extremely successful at protecting cats against infection.

How Much Does the Rabies Vaccine for Cats Cost?

The cost of vaccinating a cat against rabies varies by product and veterinary clinic, but you should expect to pay somewhere between $15 and $35. If the cost is a barrier, you may be able to find a low-cost vaccination clinic or animal shelter near you that can provide the shot for free or at a reduced rate.

Do Indoor Cats Need a Rabies Vaccine?

Yes—indoor cats should be vaccinated against rabies too, says Whittemore. For one, there's a good chance it's already mandated by the state in which you live. But more importantly, while an indoor cat's chance of coming in contact with the rabies virus is low, it isn't zero. Your cat could escape out the front door or a member of your local wildlife community, such as a bat or raccoon, could make its way in through an open window or door. One hallmark of rabies is that it can cause animals that are normally shy and withdrawn to lose all fear of other animals and become highly aggressive. Given the seriousness of the disease, it isn't worth the risk.

Side Effects of the Rabies Vaccine in Cats

The rabies vaccine is very safe, but as with other vaccines that stimulate an immune response, it can cause side effects like mild fever, decreased appetite, and lethargy, says Whittemore. Your cat may also experience soreness or swelling at the injection site. Whittemore notes that these side effects typically resolve within one or two days.

Though rare, there's also a chance your cat could have an allergic reaction to the rabies vaccine. Associated side effects include facial swelling, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and hives. If you think your cat is having an allergic reaction, seek immediate care.

Feline injection-site sarcomas are another uncommon reaction that can develop following any injection in cats, says Whittemore. These are cancerous tumors that can appear at the site of injection months and even years after the event. If a lump forms where your cat has been given a shot, be sure to let your veterinarian know.

And if you're ever worried or unsure about your cat's reaction to a vaccine, don't hesitate to reach out to your veterinary team for advice.