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Rabies in Cats

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ASPCA logoRabies is a viral disease that affects the brain and spinal cord of all mammals, including cats, dogs and humans. This preventable disease has been reported in every state except Hawaii, and annually causes the deaths of more than 50,000 humans and millions of animals worldwide. There’s good reason that the very word “rabies” evokes fear in people-once symptoms appear, rabies is close to 100-percent fatal.

How Would My Cat Get Rabies?

There are several reported routes of transmission of the rabies virus. Rabies is most often transmitted through a bite from an infected animal. Less frequently, it can be passed on when the saliva of an infected animal enters another animal’s body through mucous membranes or an open, fresh wound.

The risk for contracting rabies runs highest if your cat is exposed to wild animals. Outbreaks can occur in populations of wild animals (most often raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes in this country) or in areas where there are significant numbers of unvaccinated, free-roaming dogs and cats. In the United States, rabies is reported in cats more than in any domestic species.

What Are the General Symptoms of Rabies?

Animals will not show signs immediately following exposure to a rabid animal. Symptoms can be varied and can take months to develop. Classic signs of rabies in cats are changes in behavior (including aggression, restlessness and lethargy), increased vocalization, loss of appetite, weakness, disorientation, paralysis, seizures and even sudden death.

Which Cats Are the Most at Risk for Getting Rabies?

Unvaccinated cats who are allowed to roam outdoors are at the highest risk for rabies infection. Outdoor cats may, in the course of daily life, get into a fight with an infected wild animal or an infected stray dog or cat. And although widespread vaccination programs have helped to control rabies in dogs, feral cat populations remain a reservoir host for the rabies virus.

How Is Rabies Diagnosed?

There is no accurate test to diagnose rabies in live animals. The direct fluorescent antibody test is the most accurate test for diagnosis, but it can only be performed after the death of the animal. The rabies virus can incubate in a cat’s body anywhere from just one week to more than a year before becoming active. When the virus does become active, symptoms appear quickly.

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