Rabies in Cats

Rabies in cats is more common than in dogs, as many cats in the United States aren't vaccinated against the rabies virus. Unlike many feline diseases, rabies is dangerous because it can be transmitted to humans. While cases of human rabies are rare in the United States, those who work with animals are at higher risk of contracting the disease.

Transmission of Rabies

Transmission of the rabies virus usually occurs when an infected animal bites a non-infected animal. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and bats are the wild animals most likely to transmit it. The virus does not live long outside the host, and remains viable in the infected carcass for less than 24 hours. The virus sheds at the highest rates in saliva, which is why a bite is the most common method of transmission. However, humans, cats and dogs aren't as susceptible to the disease as some animals, and being bitten by a rabid animal does not necessarily guarantee infection.

Phases of Rabies Infection

Once bitten by an infected animal, the rabid cat may progress through one or more stages of infection. In most cases, the virus spreads through the cat's nerves towards its brain. The average incubation period of rabies in cats is about two to six weeks. After the virus reaches the brain, the rabid cat will begin to show symptoms.

The phases of rabies infection are as follows:

  • The prodromal phase is the first phase. Cats in the prodromal stage of rabies may display apprehension, nervousness, anxiety, a desire for solitude and a high fever. Animals may also display personality changes during this phase of the disease; a previously friendly animal may become aggressive, but a previously aggressive animal may become friendly, affectionate and docile. In cats, the prodromal phase lasts for one or two days. Their fever spikes and personality changes can be quite pronounced.
  • Cats are especially prone to developing the second or furious phase. They'll become restless and irritable, and hypersensitive to lights and noise. They may become irritable and vicious, and may begin to roam. Eventually, they'll become disoriented, have seizures and die.
  • The paralytic, or dumb, phase may occur following either the furious or prodromal phase. The paralytic phase develops two to four days after symptoms appear. This phase paralyzes the muscles of the respiratory system, causing animals to salivate excessively. Cats in this phase may also display labored breathing and make choking noises. The paralytic phase leads to respiratory failure and death.

Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Currently, rabies is diagnosed by examining the brain under a microscope. There is no cure for rabies. Death is almost certain, though dogs and humans have been known to survive infection with aggressive medical care.

The best treatment for rabies in cats is prevention. Vaccination against the rabies virus is not only a good idea, it's required by law in many states. However, some estimates suggest that less than ten percent of American cats are vaccinated against rabies, leading to the higher incidence of rabies in cats.