Anyone who has ever seen the movie Old Yeller’ is familiar with the deadly and tragic disease of Rabies. Although well-known and infamous, vaccination programs rabies has helped to make the disease less common in domestic dogs and cats. However, it is important to be familiar of the symptoms of rabies in cats nonetheless, as many wild animals can be infected, and can easily transmit the disease to you or your cat if you are not prepared.
Rabies is a viral, zoonotic neroinvasive disease. In layman’s terms, this means that rabies is a type of virus that is transmissible to humans that affects the brain. Rabies is most commonly spread from infected animals to humans and other animals in the form of a bite. Left untreated, Rabies is almost always fatal to both humans and animals.
In North America, the most common sources of rabies infections are foxes, raccoons, skunks, wolves, coyotes and bats. These animals are highly susceptible to the virus, and as such it is often highly prevalent within their populations. By contrast, cats, humans and dogs are naturally more resistant to the disease, and it is estimated that only about 15% of bites from affected animals will result in the rabies virus in humans and domestic animals. However, because rabies is almost always fatal, any bite to you or your animal from one of these common sources should be reported to your doctor or veterinarian so that appropriate medical care can be provided.
Most cats that become infected with rabies have been bitten by one of these wild animals, usually in the course of hunting or fighting. The rabies virus is shed at high levels in saliva, and after being bitten the virus begins to spread through the nerves of the newly infected animal, moving towards the brain. Rabies is a slow-moving disease, with the typical first onset of symptoms occurring 2-6 weeks after being infected in cats, and 3-6 weeks in people. In some cases however, the virus moves even slower, and animals have begun to show symptoms of rabies as long as 6 months after being bitten.
Once the virus reaches the brain, the symptoms of cat rabies will begin to appear.
The first phase is known as the prodromal phase, where early non-specific symptoms may begin to manifest themselves. Affected cats may begin to be more nervous than usual, or show signs of increased anxiousness or apprehension. Behavior changes may occur, where normally friendly cats may become more withdrawn or easily annoyed, and normally standoffish or aggressive cats may suddenly become quiet and affectionate. In nature, this is where typically skittish wildlife will suddenly appear to lose all fear and venture out of their habitat and near humans. Spikes of fever may develop, leading to episodes of normal behavior and energy and lethargy and depression. Typically the prodromal phase lasts one to two days.
After the prodromal phase, the symptoms of cat rabies begin to get more specific, and the cat enters the furious phase. This phase can last from 1- 7 days, and animals will become progressively more restless and aggressive, and begin to react strongly to visual and auditory stimulus. They may become openly vicious, and disorientation may lead them to attack or bite without warning or provocation. As this phase progresses, seizures may begin to occur as the inflammation in the brain progresses, and depending on their severity some animals will die as a direct result of these seizures.
Within 2-4 days of the first signs being noted, animals may enter the paralytic stage. Nerves in the head and throat become impeded, and animals will begin to have the classic look of extensive salivation due to their inability to swallow. Labored breathing and trouble with the jaw may also develop, as the animals’ ability to breathe and have muscle control is destroyed by the virus. Eventually animals will die as a result of respiratory failure, as they struggle to breathe but no longer possess the muscle strength to do so.
At this time, diagnosis of rabies is made via clinical signs and the vaccination history and clinical history of the pet. The only way to know for sure if an animal was affected with rabies is to submit the deceased animals brain to a laboratory to test for the disease.
Before 1885, virtually every person or animal that contracted rabies died as a result of the virus. However, since that time the advent of the rabies vaccine by Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux has aided prevention of rabies in animals and treatment of humans who have been exposed to rabies, making this vaccination an extremely reliable and live-saving invention.
Because there is no post-exposure treatment available for dogs and cats, and because the rabies virus is almost always fatal, the absolute best way to safeguard your cat against rabies is by way of a Rabies vaccination. Required by law in many states for all dogs and cats, rabies vaccination programs have been essential in reducing the number of rabies cases in domesticated animals. Vaccinated dogs and cats have almost no chance of contracting the disease if bitten, making rabies vaccination a vital part of any pet owners arsenal against disease.
Currently in North America, rabies in cats is far more common than rabies in domestic dogs, perhaps due to the fact that a much smaller percentage of cats (less than 10%) are actually vaccinated, and their natural prey drive makes them more likely to tangle with potentially infected wildlife.
Rabies vaccinations are available through your veterinarian, as well as at various shot clinics and other venues in your community. Vaccination protocols for rabies are typically started at 16 weeks, when a kitten is given his or her first vaccination. That vaccine is then boostered in 1 year, and then every 3 years thereafter. However, some communities and states have their own rules and regulations regarding the frequency of rabies vaccines, so it is important to consult your veterinarian to be sure you are vaccinating your cat according to your states recommendations and requirements.
Rabies is a devastating and notorious illness that can be easily transmitted to unvaccinated cats via the bite of an infected animal. In order to prevent this devastating disease in your cat, establishing a vaccination program can help to ensure that your cat is not at risk.