Rabies is a fatal virus that is extremely contagious among pets, including cats. In this blog, our Los Angeles 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, fortunately, can be prevented. This disease affects mammals' central nervous systems. The disease spreads through infected animal bites, which travel 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 seven days.

How does rabies spread?

The most common carriers of rabies in the United States are raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks, but the disease can infect 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 has the rabies virus, it can infect you and the other humans and animals in your household. 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. It is possible to contract rabies through scratching, but this is extremely rare and unlikely. If you suspect you have come into contact with the rabies virus, contact your doctor immediately so that you can get a rabies vaccine and keep the disease from spreading.

How common is rabies in cats?

Fortunately, rabies is no longer prevalent 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 lethal illness. However, this virus is now more prevalent in cats than in dogs, with 241 cases of rabies 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 transmit the disease to your cat. If you believe your cat has been bitten by another animal, contact your veterinarian to ensure they have not been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they have been 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 it causes your pet to become nervous and even vicious. They may scream incessantly, have seizures, and stop eating. The virus has progressed to the point where it is attacking the nervous system, preventing your cat from swallowing, resulting in the classic symptom of excessive drooling known as "foaming at the mouth."

Paralytic stage - This is the stage at which a rabid cat will go into a coma and cease breathing. Unfortunately, this is the stage at which most pets die. This usually happens about seven days after the symptoms first appear, with death occurring after about three 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 develop symptoms right away. The typical incubation period is three to eight weeks, but it can range from ten days to a year.

The time it takes for symptoms to appear is entirely determined by the location of the infection. A bite that is close to the spine or brain will develop much faster than others, and the severity of the bite will also be a factor.

How is rabies treated in cats?

If your cat develops rabies symptoms, neither you nor your veterinarian can help them. There is no known cure for rabies, and once symptoms appear, the patient's health will deteriorate within days.

If your pet has received the rabies vaccines for kittens, 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, please notify your local health department. Unvaccinated pets bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, or as long as local and state regulations require. In contrast, a vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a person should be quarantined and monitored for ten days.

Euthanize your pet humanely to relieve their suffering and protect the other people and pets in your home. If your cat dies unexpectedly from what you suspect is rabies, your veterinarian may recommend that you have a sample of the cat's brain examined. The only certain 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 Los Angeles vets as quickly as possible.