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Rabies in Cats

Rabies is a deadly virus that is very contagious for pets, including cats. In this post, our Tucson veterinarians discuss the impact the rabies 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, 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 7 days.

How does rabies spread?

In the United States, wildlife such as raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks are the most responsible for rabies transmission - but this condition can affect any mammal. Rabies is commonly found in areas with large populations of unvaccinated feral cats and dogs. 

Rabies spreads 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 like the gums. The more your cat interacts with wild animals, the more likely it is to become infected.

If your cat carries the rabies virus, it can infect you and the other humans and animals in your home. Rabies can be transmitted to humans when the saliva of an infected animal, such as your cat, comes into contact with broken skin or mucous membranes.

Can an indoor cat get rabies?

Yes, indoor cats can still be at risk of contracting rabies if they come into contact with an infected animal that enters the home. It is important to ensure your cat is up to date on their rabies vaccinations to protect them from this deadly virus. 

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

It is possible to get infected with rabies by being scratched but it is very rare and unlikely. If you suspect that you have been in contact with the rabies virus you must call your doctor immediately so they can provide you with a rabies vaccine to keep the disease from advancing.

How common is rabies in cats?

Thankfully, rabies is no longer that common in cats, thanks in large part to the rabies vaccine, which is required for household pets in most states to help prevent the spread of this deadly illness. However, if you believe your kitty has been bitten by another animal with rabies, we still recommend calling your veterinarian to make sure your feline friend hasn't 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 stage is the most dangerous because it makes your pet nervous and even vicious. They might cry out excessively and experience seizures and stop eating. The virus has gotten to the stage where it has begun attacking the nervous system, and it prevents your cat from being able to swallow, leading to 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, there will be no immediate signs or symptoms. The average incubation period is three to eight weeks.

The speed with which symptoms appear is entirely dependent on the infection site. A bite near the spine or brain will develop much faster than others, and this is also determined by the severity of the bite.

How is a cat with rabies treated?

If your cat begins to show symptoms of rabies, there is nothing you or your veterinarian can do to help them. There is no known cure for rabies, and once symptoms appear, their condition will deteriorate within a few days.

If your pet has received the rabies vaccines, including all required boosters, provide proof of vaccination to your veterinarian. If anyone comes into contact with their saliva or is bitten by your pet (including yourself), they should see a doctor immediately. Unfortunately, rabies is always fatal in unvaccinated animals, typically within 7 to 10 days of the onset of symptoms.

If your cat is diagnosed with rabies, you must report the case to the local health department. An unvaccinated pet that has been bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, or as required by local and state regulations. A vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a human should be quarantined and monitored for ten days.

Your pet should be euthanized humanely to alleviate their suffering while also protecting the other people and pets in your home. If your cat dies suddenly from what appears to be rabies, your veterinarian may recommend that a sample of the cat's brain be examined. Rabies can only be definitively diagnosed 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 Tucson vets as quickly as possible.

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