Rabies is a deadly virus that is very contagious for pets, including cats. In this post, our Pico Rivera veterinarians discuss the impact the rabies virus can have on cats including how common it is, its symptoms, and how it can be prevented.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a highly contagious virus that, fortunately, is avoidable. This disease affects the central nervous systems of mammals. The disease spreads through infected animal bites and travels along nerves from the bite site to the spinal cord and then to the brain. When the rabies virus enters the brain, the infected animal develops symptoms and typically dies within 7 days.

How does rabies spread?

In the U.S. wildlife, such as raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks are the ones most responsible for spreading rabies— but this condition can be found in any mammal. Usually, rabies is found in areas that have high populations of unvaccinated feral cats and dogs. 

Rabies is spread through the saliva of infected mammals and is most commonly transmitted through bites from infected animals. Rabies can also be spread when an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with an open wound or mucous membranes, such as the gums. The more your cat comes into contact with wild animals, the more likely he or she will become infected.

If your cat does happen to have the rabies virus it can spread it to you and the other humans and animals living in your home. People can get rabies when the saliva of an infected animal such as your cat comes into contact with broken skin or mucus membrane.

What are the chances of getting rabies from a cat scratch?

It is possible to contract rabies through scratching, but this is extremely rare and unlikely. If you suspect that you have come into contact with the rabies virus, contact your doctor immediately so that you can receive a rabies vaccine and prevent the disease from spreading.

How common is rabies in cats?

Thankfully, rabies is no longer common in cats, thanks in large part to the rabies vaccine, which is required in most states for household pets to help prevent the spread of this deadly illness. This virus, however, is now more common in cats than in dogs, with 241 rabies cases in cats reported in 2018. Cats typically contract rabies after being bitten by a wild animal; however, even if you have an indoor cat, it is still susceptible to rabies because infected animals such as mice can enter your home and spread the disease to your cat. If you believe your cat has been bitten by another animal, contact your veterinarian to ensure that your feline friend has not been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they are vaccinated.

What are the signs & symptoms of cat rabies?

Generally, there are three recognizable stages of the rabies virus in cats, below we have listed the signs and symptoms so you know how to tell if a cat has rabies:

Prodromal stage - A rabid cat will typically exhibit changes in behavior that differ from its usual personality at this stage; for example, if your kitty is normally shy, it may become more outgoing, and vice versa. If you notice any behavioral changes in your cat after an unknown bite, keep them away from other pets and family members and contact your veterinarian right away.

Furious stage - This is the most dangerous stage because it causes your pet to become nervous and even aggressive. They may scream incessantly, have seizures, and stop eating. The virus has progressed to the point where it is attacking your cat's nervous system, preventing him from swallowing and causing 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 seven days after symptoms first appear, with death usually happening after about 3 days. 

How long will it take for my cat to show symptoms of rabies?

If your cat has been exposed to the rabies virus, it will not show any symptoms right away. The typical incubation period is three to eight weeks, but it can last anywhere from 10 days to 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.

How is a cat with rabies treated?

If your cat starts displaying symptoms of rabies, there is unfortunately nothing you or your veterinarian 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 received the kitten shots that protect them from rabies, including all required boosters, show your veterinarian proof of vaccination. If anyone comes into contact with their saliva or is bitten by your pet (including yourself), tell them to see a doctor right away. Unfortunately, rabies is always fatal in unvaccinated animals, usually within 7 to 10 days of the onset of symptoms.

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.

If you believe your cat has come into contact with the rabies virus, keep them away from your other pets and family members and contact our Pico Rivera vets as quickly as possible.