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Rabies in Cats: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, & Treatment

Rabies in Cats: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, & Treatment

At Natick, our vets shed light on the dangerous and highly transmittable rabies virus that can afflict pets, specifically cats. In this article, we will go over the symptoms it can cause in felines, and essential measures that can be taken to protect against it.

Feline Rabies

This extremely contagious virus impacts mammals' central nervous systems. The disease spreads via bites from infected animals and travels from the site the bite has occurred along the nerves until it makes its way to the spinal cord, then to the brain. As soon as the rabies virus infects the brain, the affected animal will begin to display symptoms and will often die within 7 days. Fortunately, rabies is preventable.

Causes of Rabies in Cats

Rabies is most commonly spread by wildlife in the United States, including foxes, skunks, bats, and raccoons, but any mammal can contract the disease. Areas with high populations of unvaccinated feral dogs and cats are particularly at risk.

The virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected mammals, usually through bites, but contact with open wounds or mucus membranes can also spread the disease. If your cat regularly interacts with wild animals, its risk of infection increases.

If your cat does have the rabies virus, it can potentially spread it to you and other humans and animals in your household. People can contract rabies when an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with broken skin or mucus membranes. While it's possible to become infected with rabies from a cat's scratch, it's very rare and unlikely.

Suppose you suspect you have been in contact with an animal that has the rabies virus. In that case, it's critical to call your doctor immediately so they can administer the rabies vaccine to prevent the disease from advancing. 

How Common Rabies Is in Cats

It's good news that rabies is not commonly found among cats nowadays due to the mandatory rabies vaccine for household pets in most states. This vaccine has been effective in preventing the spread of this deadly virus. However, cats are more susceptible to rabies than dogs, usually after being bitten by a wild animal.

Even indoor cats are at risk as infected animals like mice can enter your home and transmit the disease to your cat. In case you suspect that another animal has bitten your furry friend, it's best to contact your vet to confirm if your cat has been exposed to the rabies virus, even if they have received the vaccine.

Signs of Rabies in Cats

Generally, cats that have contracted rabies will go through three recognizable stages of the virus. Here are the signs and symptoms of rabies in a cat, which occur in each stage:

Prodromal stage - In this stage, a cat with rabies will typically exhibit changes in their behavior that differs from their usual personality. If your kitty is usually shy, they could become more outgoing, and vice versa. If you see any behavioral abnormalities in your cat after they have obtained an unknown bite, keep them away from any other pets and family members, and call your vet immediately.

Furious stage - This stage is the most dangerous because it makes your pet nervous and even vicious. They might cry out excessively and experience seizures and stop eating. The virus has gotten to the stage where it has begun attacking the nervous system, and it prevents your cat from being able to swallow, leading to the classic symptom of excessive drooling, known as "foaming at the mouth."

Paralytic stage - This is the final stage in which a rabid cat will go into a coma, and won't be able to breathe. Unfortunately, this is the stage where pets usually pass away. This often takes place about 7 days after symptoms first appear, with death usually happening after about 3 days. 

How Long Symptoms of Rabies Take to Show

If your cat has been exposed to the rabies virus, it won't show any immediate signs or symptoms. The usual incubation period is approximately three to eight weeks, but, it can be anywhere from 10 days to as long as a year.

The speed at which symptoms appear depends entirely on the infection site. A bite that is closer to the spine or brain will develop much faster than others and it also depends on the severity of the bite.

Treating Rabies in Cats

If your cat displays symptoms of rabies, unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to help them. Rabies has no known cure and once symptoms appear, the cat's health will deteriorate rapidly within a few days.

If your pet has received the necessary kitten shots to protect them from rabies, and all required boosters, be sure to provide proof of vaccination to your veterinarian. In the event that anyone comes into contact with your pet's saliva or is bitten, including yourself, advise them to seek medical attention immediately. Sadly, unvaccinated animals afflicted with rabies will inevitably perish, typically within 7 to 10 days of the onset of initial symptoms.

If your cat is diagnosed with rabies, it is necessary to report the case to your local health department. An unvaccinated pet that has been bitten or exposed to a known rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months in accordance with local and state regulations. Conversely, a vaccinated animal that has bitten or scratched a human should be quarantined and monitored for 10 days.

Your pet 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 to provide them with the appropriate vaccinations that help prevent the disease. Talk to your vet about scheduling an appointment to make sure your pet is up to date with their rabies shots and other vaccinations. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your cat may have come into contact with the rabies virus? Contact our Natick vets as quickly as possible.

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