Though people may mostly associate rabies with dogs, it’s a virus that can affect any mammal — including cats. In fact, rabies affects more cats than dogs in the United States. The virus can be passed on to other animals or humans and is fatal if not treated before symptoms appear. But thanks to vaccines, rabies is also preventable and now rare in house pets.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus that affects the central nervous system of mammals. It’s usually transmitted when an infected animal bites another animal or human. The virus starts at the location of the bite and moves through the body along the nerves until it reaches the brain. Once rabies reaches the brain, the infected animal will begin to show symptoms and will usually die within 7 days.
How Can a Cat Get Rabies?
In the United States, rabies is uncommon in domestic animals. Most states have laws mandating vaccines to prevent the spread of rabies in cats, dogs, and other animals. The CDC reports that there were only 241 cases of rabies in cats in 2018 (the most recent year for which they have data).
When a cat does get rabies, it's usually from the bite of an infected wild animal. Raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes are common rabies carriers. The more contact your cat has with wild animals, the higher the risk of their infection.
What Are the Symptoms of Rabies?
The first indication that your cat may have rabies is a bite from another animal. If another pet bites your cat, speak to that animal's owner about their rabies risk. If your cat is attacked by a wild animal, call your vet about possible rabies exposure.
The first thing your vet may suggest is an immediate booster shot of a rabies vaccine to stop the virus from taking hold. Your vet may also tell you to isolate your cat and to watch them for several weeks to see if they develop symptoms. Depending on where you live, it may also be necessary to notify county officials so that potential human exposure can be identified. They may require your cat to be quarantined (either at home or at an approved facility).
The symptoms of rabies include:
- Changes in behavior. Cats who are usually calm may become excitable or agitated. Extroverted cats may become less affectionate and may isolate themselves.
- Aggression. Cats can become excitable, aggressive, and vicious towards humans or other animals.
- Drooling. Rabies can affect muscles in a cat’s mouth so they can’t swallow. They may drool or foam at the mouth.
- Loss of muscle control. The final stages of rabies cause paralysis and coma.
Can Cats Pass Rabies to Humans?
A cat with rabies can pass the virus to their owner. In order to become infected with rabies, you need to have direct contact with the saliva of an affected animal. This doesn’t mean you can get rabies if a cat licks or drools on you. The saliva needs to come in contact with a mucus membrane or broken skin.
Animals most commonly transmit rabies to humans through bites. It is possible for a human to get rabies from an animal scratch, but it’s very rare.
If you think that you have been exposed to rabies, call your doctor immediately. You may need a series of rabies vaccines to prevent the infection from progressing.
How Is Rabies Diagnosed and Treated?
Rabies in cats isn't obvious right away. There is an incubation phase after exposure that lasts several weeks — and even up to a year — when the cat won’t show any signs of rabies, and their saliva will not be infectious.
There is no test for rabies in living animals. If you suspect your cat has been exposed to rabies, your vet will suggest that you isolate the cat and watch for symptoms. A booster vaccine might be able to prevent a cat from getting infected after exposure to rabies.
If your cat begins to show symptoms, there is nothing you or your vet can do. There is no treatment or cure for rabies in cats. Once symptoms appear, a cat’s health will deteriorate quickly and it will die within a matter of days.
Your cat should be humanely euthanized to ease their suffering and to protect the other people and pets in your home. If your cat dies suddenly of what you suspect to be rabies, your vet may recommend having a sample from the cat’s brain examined. Direct testing of the brain is the only way to diagnose rabies for sure.
The best protection against rabies in cats is a regular rabies vaccine. Speak to your vet about making sure your cat is up to date on their rabies shots.