Rabies in Cats

Rabies in Cats

Rabies is a viral, devastating disease that causes brain inflammation in all mammals, including humans, cats and dogs. The disease is caused by lyssaviruses and it is transmitted via saliva. Here is everything you need to know about rabies in cats.

Background information

Rabies is a viral disease caused by RNA viruses from the Rhabdoviridae viral family - lyssaviruses. Lyssaviruses can affect all mammals. Once the virus infects an animal, it starts replicating in the muscles and then it spreads to the nervous system.

Dr. Katy Nelson explains on PetMD: "Once the virus enters the cat's body, it replicates in the cells of the muscles and then spreads to the closest nerve fibers, including all peripheral, sensory and motor nerves, traveling from there to the CNS via fluid within the nerves.".

The length of the incubation period between the infection and presentation of symptoms largely varies. In cats, incubation typically lasts from 3 to 8 weeks, but it can also be as little as a few days and as long as several months. The speed of disease progression mainly depends on the site of infection, the severity of the bite and the amount of virus injected by the bite. Once the symptoms are presented, however, the disease almost inevitably results in death.

tabby cat with white chest and brown eyes

Transmission and prevalence

Lyssaviruses are transmitted via saliva. The virus can be transmitted through bites and scratches from infected animals, or when the saliva of the infected animal gets in contact with another animal's eyes, mouth, nose or open wounds. Pets are commonly infected with rabies from wild animals, such as bats, foxes, coyotes, and raccoons.

The virus can not only be transmitted from animal to animal, but from animal to human as well. In many parts of the world, animal control and mandatory vaccination programs have largely helped control the transmission of this disease to pets and humans. If you're interested in learning more about the rabies prevalence in the world please refer to this article.

bicolor black and white cat yawning

Symptoms and diagnosis

Once the virus infects the new host, the disease can progress into two directions: paralytic or furious. The early phase is called the prodromal stage, after which cats can progress either to the furious stage, paralytic stage or the combination of the two. Some cats may also succumb to the infection without displaying major symptoms. Clinical presentation of rabies involves the following symptoms associated with three stages:

1. Prodromal stage. The first stage of the disease is characterized by changes in personality and temperament. Usually, active and social cats may become anxious or shy, while quiet cats can become easily agitated and unfriendly. The cats show mild signs of CNS abnormalities.

2. Furious stage. This phase is marked with extreme behavioral changes. Cats are increasingly nervous, agitated, irritable and aggressive. Involuntary movements, muscle spasm and excessive drooling are common too.

3. Paralytic stage. In the paralytic stage of the disease is characterized by widely dilated., pupils, weakness, loss of coordination and paralysis. Other symptoms include fever, seizures, hydrophobia, dropped jaw, unusual behavioral changes and excitability and hypersalivation.

The diagnosis of rabies is achieved through the testing of fluids of the brain, skin, saliva and urine. If a cat (or another pet) is suspected of being infected by rabies, it is quarantined from 10 days to 6 months at the vet's office where the animal is monitored, the tests are run and the treatment approach is designed.

If your cat was in contact with wild animals, even if it's vaccinated, it is recommended to consult with a veterinarian, as the prognosis of the diseases decreases with clinical progression and presentation of symptoms.

gray tabby cat with green eyes on a soft blanket

Treatment and prevention

Luckily, vaccines against rabies are available, and in many parts of the world they are mandatory for pets. Rabies is fatal for all unvaccinated animals, which is why it is extremely important to tend to your cat's vaccines regularly. Vaccines are highly effective in the control of rabies transmission. They not only protect your cat from the disease but yourself too.

Treatment of the disease is not available after the symptoms have already appeared. VCA hospital reports: "In some cases, there is no rabies virus in the saliva at the time the rabid animal bites another. In this situation, the bitten animal will not develop rabies. However, once the symptoms of rabies develop, the disease will almost invariably progress to death." 

"There are very rare and poorly documented cases where people or animals have recovered. However, as Louis Pasteur was the first to show, it is possible to interrupt the progression from an infected bite to the onset of signs by the use of early post-bite anti-rabies serum. This antiserum contains specific immune antibodies to the virus."

"The most important method for preventing the progression of rabies is by administering an immediate dose of rabies vaccine. The vaccine stimulates the bitten animal to develop its own neutralizing antibodies to the rabies virus."

It is important to remember, however, that the treatment and post-bite vaccination is effective only if applied before the virus enters the nervous system. This is why timely diagnosis and assessment are essential in rabies management.

cute gray and white fluffy cat sleeping on a wooden chair

Rabies is a devastating, but preventable, viral disease which affects all mammals, including our pets and us. It is very important to vaccinate your cats regularly in order to protect them from this vicious virus, as well as to prevent transmission to humans. If you suspect that your cat was bitten or scratched by a wild animal or you have any other reason to suspect your cat came in contact with the virus, consult with your vet immediately.

Further reading:

1. Rabies in Cats by PetMD
2. Rabies in Cats by VCA hospital
3. Rabies in Cats by WebMD
4. Rabies by Wikipedia

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