Rabies In Cats: Signs, Diagnosis & Prevention

Rabies is a serious and fatal illness to both cats and humans. Learn how to prevent rabies with vaccination and what to do if your cat is exhibiting symptoms.

Vanessa Armstrong

Updated May 18, 2023 • Published April 21, 2022

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Rabies In Cats: Signs, Diagnosis & Prevention

Rabies is a fatal disease that cats (and humans) contract when an infected animal bites them or has exposed skin contact with infected saliva. Given the seriousness of the illness, if your cat has rabies, the most immediate concern is to make sure they don’t bite a person or another animal and infect them as well. 

Unfortunately, there is no treatment to save a cat after they get rabies. The good news is that there is a rabies vaccine for your cat that will protect them from contracting this disease.

Because of the public health concern to humans, these vaccinations are legally required in most of the United States. Worldwide, approximately 59,000 people die from rabies every year. In the most recent data of cases reported in 2020, domestic animals contributed to about 10% of all positive cases. 95% of those cases involved dogs, cats, and cattle. On a more alarming note, five cases of human death by rabies infection were reported. This is the highest number of deaths in humans caused by rabies in the past decade.

We can reduce this risk to ourselves and our pets by making sure our feline friends stay on a proper rabies vaccine schedule.

Learn more about rabies in cats, including how to determine when your cat should be vaccinated. 

Signs of rabies in cats

Rabies symptoms are also associated with other illnesses, and conversely, a cat with rabies may not show all of the characteristic signs.

Because there is nothing we can do to save a cat once they contract rabies, keeping an eye out for rabies symptoms and identifying them early won’t be enough to save your cat. 

There are two different forms of rabies in cats. Both types typically begin with the prodromal phase and then progress into "furious" rabies or "dumb" rabies.

The prodromal phase occurs after the bite has occurred. During this phase, a cat’s temperament and behavior start to change. A normally calm and quiet cat can become agitated and an active and outgoing dog may become very withdrawn and shy.

The more common form of rabies in cats is dumb rabies. Following the prodromal phase, paralysis begins to affect the cat’s legs and face and they have difficulty swallowing. Once the paralysis has set in, cats will become comatose and ultimately pass away from violent seizures and paralysis of the diaphragm.

The furious phase is what most people associate with rabies. The cat will become aggressive and eat strange objects like rocks, dirt, and items around the home. Paralysis eventually overcomes the cat and they pass away similar to dumb rabies. The furious phase does include hydrophobia (a fear of water), but only humans are subjected to this aspect of the virus.

Once exposure has occurred, there is an incubation period that can vary anywhere from 10 days to a year or longer. In most domestic animals, the incubation period is normally 2 weeks to 4 months. The speed at which the virus travels to the brain and spinal cord depends on the location of the bite, the severity of the bite, and the amount of virus that enters the body. 

When to vaccinate your cat for rabies

Generally speaking, most states require your cat to get a single dose of the vaccine before six months of age, though your veterinarian can give your kitten a single dose of the vaccine as early as 12 weeks old. Whenever they get their first vaccine, they should be revaccinated a year later and then given boosters every one to three years throughout their adult life depending on your county’s laws. 

You can check out the most recent guidelines for feline vaccination schedules here, though your veterinarian will also have this information and will be able to provide the best schedule for your cat depending on their specific needs. You can check the specific legal requirements in your county here, though your vet will also have this information. 

What to do if you think your cat has rabies

If your cat isn’t up to date on their vaccinations and they get bitten, it’s even more important to get in touch with your veterinarian, as the protocols for quarantining your pet, for example, vary depending on local laws and the status of the biting animal. A Pawp Professional is also here for you 24/7 if you find yourself in this situation. 

If your cat is exhibiting signs of rabies but is up to date on their vaccines, it’s vital to contact a veterinarian right away, as they may be sick with another illness that requires medical attention. 

If your cat is not vaccinated, however, and you think they have rabies, do not touch or approach them and take every precaution to avoid the animal biting anyone. If you can’t approach your cat or another cat safely, do not do so and reach out to animal control or your local public health authorities who will safely remove the cat for you. 

While rabies is an extremely serious disease, we can circumvent all this worry and potential risk by making sure your cat is vaccinated. In addition, having your cat up to date on their rabies vaccine also reduces the quarantine time if they are ever involved in an encounter with an unvaccinated domestic animal or a wild animal. Get in touch with your local veterinarian to schedule an appointment today if your cat isn’t vaccinated already. 

Other Resources

In addition to the documents below, your local county and state public health departments will also have data on rabies cases in your area.  




Reviewed and fact-checked by

Mika, RVT at Pawp

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