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Rabies in Cats

Rabies is a fatal virus that is extremely contagious among pets, including cats. In this blog, our Riverside County veterinarians discuss the effects of the rabies virus on cats, including how common it is, the symptoms it causes, and how it can be avoided.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a highly contagious virus that, thankfully, can be avoided. This disease affects mammals' central nervous systems. The disease spreads through bites from infected animals and travels along the nerves from the site of the bite to the spinal cord and then to the brain. When the rabies virus enters the brain, the infected animal begins to exhibit symptoms and usually dies within seven days.

How does rabies spread?

Raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks are the most common carriers of rabies in the United States, but the disease can affect any mammal. Rabies is typically found in areas with high populations of unvaccinated feral cats and dogs.

Rabies spreads through infected mammals' saliva and is most commonly transmitted through bites from infected animals. Rabies can also be transmitted 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 it is to become infected.

If your cat is infected with the rabies virus, it can infect you as well as the other humans and animals in your home. When an infected animal's saliva, such as your cat's, comes into contact with broken skin or mucus membranes, people can become infected with rabies. It is possible to contract rabies from being scratched, 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 are 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 immediately 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 rabies in cats?

Generally, there are three recognizable stages of the rabies virus in cats, below we have listed the stages including the signs and symptoms that accompany each stage:

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, they 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 your pet will become nervous and even vicious. They might scream nonstop, have seizures, or 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 - At this point, a rabid cat will go into a coma and stop breathing. Unfortunately, this is when the majority of pets die. This usually occurs seven days after the symptoms first appear, with death occurring three days later.

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 time it takes for symptoms to appear is entirely dependent on the location of the infection. A bite that is closer to the spine or brain will develop much faster than others, and the severity of the bite will also play a role.

How is rabies treated in cats?

If your cat develops rabies symptoms, there is unfortunately nothing you or your veterinarian can do to help them. There is no known cure for rabies, and once symptoms appear, their health will deteriorate in a matter of days.

If your pet has received the kitten vaccines that protect them from rabies, including all required boosters, show proof of vaccination to your veterinarian. If anyone comes into contact with their saliva or is bitten by your pet (including yourself), tell them to go to the doctor right away. Unfortunately, rabies is always fatal in unvaccinated animals, usually within 7 to 10 days of onset of symptoms.

If your cat has rabies, you must notify your local health department. Unvaccinated pets bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, or for the time period specified by local and state regulations. A vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a human, on the other hand, should be quarantined and monitored for 10 days.

To alleviate their suffering and to protect the other people and pets in your home, your pet should be humanely euthanized. If your cat dies suddenly from what you suspect is rabies, your veterinarian may advise you to have a sample of the cat's brain examined. The only sure way to diagnose rabies is through direct brain testing.

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 Riverside County vets as quickly as possible.

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