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 April 21, 2022 • Published April 21, 2022

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Rabies In Cats: Signs, Diagnosis & Prevention

Rabies is a serious disease. The illness is fatal in any warm-blooded species it infects, including cats and humans. If your cat gets rabies, they unfortunately are not only going succumb to the disease, but are also at risk of infecting those around them. 

The good news is that there are effective vaccines for your cat that will protect them from contracting rabies.

Rabies vaccinations for cats are legally required in most of the United States. These vaccine requirements have fortunately made cases relatively rare, with the latest data showing just under 300 cats diagnosed with rabies annually. That number is small, but cats are still the most common domestic animal to have reported cases, most likely because of their predatory nature and the time many spend outdoors. 

Rabies isn’t just a concern for cats—if a human is bitten and becomes infected, the disease is fatal to them as well, and approximately 55,000 people die worldwide from rabies each year. 

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.

“This is why being able to recognize the clinical signs of rabies isn’t terribly important; this won’t help you diagnose it,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, DVM. “That being said, typical symptoms of rabies virus infection in a cat can include aggressiveness, altered behavior, appetite loss, nervousness, wobbly walking, a stilted gait, being disoriented, being sensitive to light, a change in vocalization, inability to swallow, excessive salivation, weakness, collapse, paralysis, seizures, and coma. Death typically occurs as a result of respiratory failure from paralysis or prolonged seizure activity.”

Cats often go through three stages of rabies when infected via a bite from a diseased animal. The first stage is the prodromal phase and lasts 2-3 days, where the cat may be nervous, run a fever, and itch the bite location. Next is the furious phase, which lasts about a week. During this stage, the cat may bite at imaginary things, become disoriented, and eat unusual non-food items. Some cats die in this phase before reaching the final paralytic phase, where they salivate excessively and lose the ability to swallow. Death comes soon after. 

When to vaccinate your cat for rabies

It’s legally required that your cat is vaccinated for rabies. When, however, can depend on the specifics of your cat.

“Your cat is a unique individual with a one-of-a-kind history and health status, so his rabies vaccination schedule depends on a few different things,” says Dr. Myers. “Your veterinarian will be able to advise you about the best plan for your pet's unique situation and lifestyle.”

Generally speaking, however, most legislation requires your kitten get vaccinated before six months of age, though your vet can give your kitten a single dose of the vaccine as early as 12 weeks old. Whenever they get their first shot, they should then be revaccinated a year later and then given boosters every one to three years throughout their adult life. You can check the specific legal requirements in your state here, though your vet will also have this information. 

What to do if you suspect your cat has rabies 

The good news is if your cat is vaccinated you don’t have to worry about them getting sick.

“If your cat is up-to-date on rabies vaccinations and receives a bite wound, reach out to a veterinary professional for more information about what to do,” recommends Dr. Myers. “The outcome is expected to be good and you usually don't have to go through a quarantine regardless of the status of the biting animal.”

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 vet, as the protocols for quarantining your pet, for example, vary depending on local laws and the status of the biting animal. Pawp 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 the vet 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.

“Under these circumstances it is even more important to take every precaution to avoid being bitten and minimize the number of people exposed to the cat,” says Dr. Myers. “If the cat cannot be approached or handled safely, do not do so. Instead, try to confine it to one room and contact animal control or your local public health authorities and let the professionals handle removing the cat.”

While rabies is an extremely serious disease, we can circumvent all this worry and potential risk by making sure your cat is vaccinated.

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.  

http://www.nasphv.org/Documents/NASPHVRabiesCompendium.pdf

https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html

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