A closer look: Rabies in Cats
Rabies in cats is a rare, but fatal viral disease. The rabies virus is fatal to all mammals including humans, so any suspected or suggested case must be reported to local health authorities. There is no way to test for rabies while an animal is still alive, so strict protocols are in place and enforced for all wildlife exposure incidents where a bite occurred.
The nature of the medical response depends on the vaccine status of the cat. In all cases where a cat has been bitten by wildlife, immediate veterinary attention is required, whether vaccination is current or not. Pets with current rabies vaccination require medical attention to treat the bite wound. Depending on severity, this may include dressings, antibiotics, wound management, and surgical repair. Unvaccinated cats may need to be quarantined or even euthanized according to public health protocols where the incident occurred. If it is possible to test the wild animal the pet was exposed to, it may prevent the need for euthanasia, but not always.
Once a cat has been bitten by a rabid animal, the virus may remain in the body for weeks to several months before symptoms are noted. The rabies virus must make its way to the spinal cord and brain before symptoms are noted. Once symptoms appear, they progress rapidly with death occurring in 2 weeks or less.
In cases where rabies infection goes undetected, the virus progresses through the central nervous system. In the first stage of rabies, referred to as the prodromal phase, symptoms may be subtle, such as signs of behavioral changes and anxiousness. The second phase, or furious phase, usually causes the animal to become aggressive and can also include seizures and incoordination. During the final, or paralytic phase, cats can exhibit generalized paralysis, excessive salivation, or a change in vocalization. Death, from respiratory paralysis, typically occurs 2-4 days after the animal has entered the paralytic phase.
Most cases of rabies in the United States occur in wildlife, so free roaming, outdoor cats are more at risk than indoor cats. Indoor cats can still contract rabies as wild animals, such as bats, do get into houses on occasion. The rabies vaccine is highly effective, so pets with current vaccination are not considered at risk of contracting rabies. Any unvaccinated mammal can potentially contract rabies if bitten by a wild animal. Bats, skunks, and racoons are the most common reservoirs for rabies in North America.
Rabies is not contagious until the final stages of the disease. Biting animals are expected to show symptoms and die within less than 2 weeks in order for transmission to be likely.
Rabies is the result of an infection of the central nervous system with the rabies virus. Rabies virus is most commonly transmitted when saliva from an infected animal enters the bloodstream during a bite wound that breaks the skin. Non-bite transmission can happen through contamination of wounds or mucous membranes with infected saliva or nervous system tissue, but this route of transmission is rare.
Testing and diagnosis
The response to suspected or suggested cases of rabies in cats varies depending on specific details of the case.
For cats presenting with symptoms of rabies: There is currently no way to test a living animal for rabies. Testing requires submission of brain tissue. If the suspicion of rabies is high, euthanasia is warranted, with submission of samples to allow for rapid postmortem diagnosis. Public health regulations will apply to all humans potentially exposed to the cat.
For apparently healthy cats presenting with a bite wound from a known source: If the biting animal is currently vaccinated for rabies, risk of transmission is minimal. Wound care is straightforward and the cat will probably be given a rabies booster. The biting animal may be subject to a home observation period or strict quarantine depending on local regulations.
If the biting animal is not currently vaccinated or has never been vaccinated, wound care proceeds as usual, but the biting animal will be subject to:
- Euthanasia for testing
- Quarantine. If the biting animal is acting healthy after 10-14 days, transmission of rabies during the bite was unlikely
Details of public health protocols vary by jurisdiction.
For apparently healthy cats presenting with a bite wound from an unknown source:
Response depends on the vaccination status of the cat. In most jurisdictions, cats with documentation showing at least two rabies vaccinations who present with a bite wound from an unknown source receive the following treatment: Wound management
- A rabies booster
- Directions for home monitoring (as opposed to quarantine at an official site) for up to six months
Response and compliance with public health regulations are much more complicated when a cat with a bite wound from an unknown source is not vaccinated for rabies. Some jurisdictions require euthanasia for unvaccinated cats presenting with a bite wound from an unknown source, even if they are acting totally fine otherwise. In the event that euthanasia is refused, a 6-month quarantine in a dedicated facility may be required.
In general, regardless of vaccination status, cats with bite wounds need veterinary assessment to determine the care required for the bite wound and for notification of proper health authorities to decide the most appropriate course of action.
Steps to Recovery
Rabies is fatal and has no cure. Patients typically die within 10 days of onset of clinical symptoms.
Cats that have never received a rabies vaccine should be immediately euthanized if bitten by a rabid animal. There is currently no post exposure prophylaxis and immediate vaccination has not been proven to reliably protect against the disease.
Public health authorities should be contacted for guidance whenever a cat bites a person.
Rabies virus is transmissible through saliva by a bite that pierces the skin. Although less common, rabies can also be spread when infected saliva or nervous tissue contaminates open wounds or mucous membranes. An infected animal and can infect any mammal, including humans.
Vaccinating pets against rabies is an extremely effective method of preventing infection and is required by law in most jurisdictions.
Is Rabies in Cats common?
Rabies in cats is rare.
Rabies is fatal and has no treatment.