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Rabies Symptoms in Cats

Rabies is a fatal virus that is extremely contagious among animals, even cats. In this post, our veterinarians in Ketchum explain how the rabies virus affects cats, how common it is, which symptoms to watch for, and how the disease can be prevented.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a highly contagious but preventable virus. This disease can affect the central nervous system of any mammal. It spreads through bites from infected animals before travelling along the nerves from the site of the spite to the spinal cord. the virus then moves to the brain, at which point the infected animal starts to display symptoms. Typically, an infected animal will die within seven days. 

How Does Rabies Spread?

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

Rabies spreads through the saliva or infected mammals and is most often transmitted via bites from infected animals. Rabies can also be transmitted when an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with mucous membranes such as the gums, or an open wound. The more your cat interacts with wild animals, the more likely they are to become infected. 

If your cat has the rabies virus, it can also infect you, along with other people or animals in your home. When the saliva of an infected animal (cats may be included in this group) comes to contact with mucous membranes or broken skin, people can become infected with rabies.

While it is also possible to contract rabies from being scratched, this is extremely rare and unlikely. If you suspect you have come into contact with the rabies virus, contact your doctor right away so you can be vaccinated against rabies and prevent the disease from spreading. 

How Common is Rabies in Cats?

Fortunately, rabies is no longer common in cats. This is due in large part to the rabies vaccine, which is required for household pets in most states to help prevent this deadly virus from spreading. 

However, this virus is now more common in cats than in dogs. From 20024 to 2018 (the last years for which statistics were available, an average of 72 dogs and 279 cats were diagnosed with rabies in the United States annually, nearly all after contact with a wild animal. 

Even if you have an indoor cat, is is still at risk for rabies because infected animals, including bats and mice, can enter your home and spread this disease to your cat. If you believe your cat has been bitten by another animal, contact your veterinarian to make sure your four-legged friend has not been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they are vaccinated. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Rabies in Cats?

In general, the rabies virus has three recognizable stages in cats. Below, you'll find a list of stages, including signs and symptoms that accompany each stage:

Prodromal Stage – The behavior of rabid cats typically changes at this stage. For example, if your kitty is normally outgoing, they may become more shy, and vice versa. If you notice your cat's behavior change after a bite from an unknown animal, keep them away from other pets and family members and contact your vet right away. 

Furious Stage – This stage is the most dangerous since it causes your pet to become nervous and even turn vicious. They may have seizures, scream incessantly, and quit eating. This is because the virus has progressed to a point where it is attacking the nervous system, preventing your cat from swallowing. During this phase, cats often drool excessively, a classic symptom often describe 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 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.

Provide proof of vaccination to your veterinarian if your pet has received the kitten shots that protect them from rabies, including all required boosters. 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 must notify your local health department. Unvaccinated pets that are bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, or for the length of time specified by local and state regulations. In contrast, a vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a human 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 suspect your cat has come into contact with the rabies virus, keep them away from other pets and family members and contact our Ketchum vets as soon as possible

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