What do I need to know about rabies in cats?

Cat owners should be aware of at least the basics about rabies, a highly infectious disease that can be fatal to both your cat and to you if it gets infected. Rabies is a virus that does severe damage to the brain. This damage results in the well-known violence and foaming of the mouth that most people are familiar with. It is fatal once the incubation period is over (10-40 days) and if your cat gets rabies it would have to be euthanized.


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How is rabies transmitted, and how do cats get it?

Rabies is transmitted from the bite of a rabid animal. There are many potential animals that are common carriers: bats, skunks, racoons, and foxes are wild animals that are most likely to have it. The rabies virus is in the saliva of the rabid animal, and if it bites your cat in a fight there is a risk of transmission. Because rabid animals are often aggressive, they may be likely to attack your cat. Cats that are allowed outside are obviously at the greatest risk, but there is some possibility that a rabid animal could get into your home anyway - think pet doors and bats flying in as you open the door. This probably isn't that likely, but you should at least think about the risk and be aware of it.

Also be aware that there are other ways saliva could get onto your cat. If a wild animal eats from your cat's bowl or drinks from its dish it could transmit rabies, or sometimes the animals will spit and hiss, spraying the cat with saliva and infecting it if they are close together.

What should I do to keep my cat from getting rabies?

Keep your cat indoors, for one, as that will make your cat much more long-lived and dramatically reduce the risk. There is a vaccine for rabies in cats and many states require that you get it for your cat. Be aware that some  versions of this cat vaccine can cause cancer. There are safer versions and I would recommend you make sure that the vet you get the vaccine from uses those. If a cat ever goes outside, then the risk of rabies is high enough that vaccination is a must. I would also weigh the risks associated with your cat mounting an escape on its own. Personally, I chose not to get the vaccine, because my cat is terrified of the outdoors and would not voluntarily go outside. Some cats are darters, however, and they will look for a chance to shoot through your legs to get out there. If your cat is like that I would be sure to have it vaccinated.

You can also keep your cat from getting it simply by trying to keep wildlife away from your property. In some areas that's not entirely possible - but remember, the reason most wild animals are going to come near your house is for food. Get garbage cans with lids that they cannot knock off, don't leave any food out, and have a well-lit yard.

Also, if you find any dead animals near your house, bury them deep enough that your cats cannot get at them and they can't be dug up.

What are the symptoms of rabies in cats?

There are several stages. Initially, the cat will seem to change its temperament drastically and may begin drooling or acting erratically. It will gradually become more and more aggressive and bizarre. Behavior has included such things as eating rocks or objects the cat wouldn't normally eat, attacking nonexistent things, angrily responding to any activity, or your cat having seizures. Some cats later become totally paralyzed. Also know that some rabid animals become "stupid" as a result of the brain damage and do not show aggression - in fact, they may become overly docile and friendly. This is a good reason not to go petting a wild animal that seems to be tame.

Can a cat be treated?

A cat can only be treated if it has a current rabies shot - you can give it a booster. If a cat's rabies shot is out of date, you have two options. One is to quarantine it for six months. After this period, if it is alive, it does not have rabies. This may mean putting it up at the vet for that long - a costly proposition, but you can't just keep a potentially rabid cat around because rabies would be fatal to you. The other is to put the cat to sleep. If the cat is infected with rabies, that is the only humane thing to do.

What should I do if my cat gets bitten by a wild animal?

If you can catch it or kill it without risking a bite, do so. They can test the wild animal and verify whether it had rabies or not. The vet will have to kill the wild animal to do so. Keep its head intact. If you are bitten or your cat is bitten, immediately wash any wound with soap and warm water thoroughly. Then go straight to an emergency room.

What if I get bitten?

There is a treatment for rabies in humans, but ONLY if you get it immediately after being bitten. If you are bitten by a rabid animal and try to wait it out, you are likely to die. You should go to a hospital immediately.


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