HEALTH & CARE

How Do You Know If a Cat Has Rabies: Catch the Disease Early

two black and white cats playing outside
Martha Harvey
Written by Martha Harvey

Has your feline friend been acting out of the ordinary recently? More aggressive? More excitable and restless? It could be just normal excitement, or it could be a rabies infection. Although it’s a dreadful assumption, the latter is an option cat owners have to consider when they notice something unusual with their cats. You see, in the United States today, cases of rabid cats have been on the rise—making it highly important to discuss and answer the question: how do you know if a cat has rabies?

As you all know, rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects your cat’s central nervous system. Not only does this disease affect cats, but it’s also highly dangerous and infectious to humans, dogs, and other mammals in general. Luckily, if caught early, cat owners could prevent the virus from causing irreparable damage to both their beloved furry friend’s system and the living beings around them.

How Do You Know If a Cat Has Rabies

Now, to ensure that rabies in cats is detected and treated at an early stage, this article will offer a detailed guide on how to check for signs, diagnose, and treat rabies in cats. Before we start listing the symptoms for proper diagnosis, let’s take a minute to understand the causes of rabies in cats so you would be able to take proper preventive measures against them.

The Causes of Rabies in Cats

Among the most common viral infections that afflict cats, rabies is notably the most fatal. How is it transmitted?

  • This viral infection is usually inflicted on your domestic cat via a bite or a scratch by an infected animal.

  • In other cases, the virus can be transmitted via saliva from an infected animal where it enters the body through the mucous membrane or a fresh wound.

  • Also, there are some minor cases when the virus might be airborne especially if there are decomposing animal carcasses around which were already infected.

The risk of contracting rabies is highest among those cats that are highly exposed to wildlife or those cats that enjoy hunting or playing in the woods.

Kitten playing in the garden

The rabies virus occurs on every continent except in Australia and Antarctica, and the type of animal that carries this virus commonly differs from continent to continent.

  • In North America, this virus is highly transmitted by foxes, raccoons, and skunks.

  • In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the virus is transmitted by rooming or stray dogs.

  • Now, although there are no cases of rabies in Australia, it has been discovered that bats carry a dangerous virus—Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL)—which could cause a disease that is very similar to rabies.

How the Virus Works

Once your pet has been infected, the virus does its work incredibly fast right from the first day.

  • The virus begins by replicating itself and gathering strength.

  • After that, it finds its way into the muscle tissues before traversing to the nervous system then to the brain.

  • When the virus gets to the brain, it causes your cat’s brain to swell.

  • The inflammation increases the brain’s capacity—making it too big for the skull to handle, thus causing pressure and changes in your cat’s behavior. When it gets to this stage, pet owners can easily see noticeable changes or abnormal signs that should tell you your cat is infected with rabies.

According to professional vets, the incubation period of rabies virus usually manifests itself from the tenth day to around a year.

The look of a cat with rabies

The rate by which the virus spreads throughout a cat’s body greatly depends on various factors such as:

  • The size of the cat

  • Their immunity

  • The site of the infection. For instance, if a cat is bitten in an area near the brain or the spinal cord, the virus will spread much quicker to the nervous tissues—causing immediate symptoms.

  • The state of the bite/scratch. If the bite is severe, the virus will automatically spread quicker as compared to if the source was a small scratch.

Now, with that being said, we would like to prepare a step-by-step procedure on how to identify if your cat has rabies or not. We will begin by discussing the general symptoms of rabies in cats, then move on to the diagnosis, treatment, and finally prevention.

The General Symptoms of Rabies in Cats

The rabies virus attacks the brain, leading to a series of distinctive behavioral changes starting from the tenth day of being bitten. Your feline friend will go through three different stages as the disease develops. Cats in each stage will show different signs and symptoms.

Prodromal Stage

The prodromal stage is also referred to as the early stage of the rabies virus which mostly lasts for two to three days. During this initial stage, your cat will exhibit changes in temperament where she might become a complete opposite of her usual self.

A depressed cat and her owner

Here, a quiet cat becomes completely agitated and aggressive while a playful/active cat becomes shy and quite nervous. In this stage, your feline friend may sleep a lot, hide under furniture, or lose appetite. Other notable signs that become evident during this stage include:

  • Depression

  • Restlessness

  • Fever

  • Increased vocalization

Furious Stage

This is the most critical stage where your feline friend becomes extremely aggressive and vicious. At this stage, you’ll notice that your cat’s claws and teeth are always on alert—waiting for the slightest provocation.

Image showing a furios cat

As excitement predominates your cat, she becomes extremely dangerous both to the other animals around her and you as the owner. During this stage, your cat might become disoriented—something which could lead to accidents and even sudden death.

Now, the common symptoms you’re likely to see during this stage include:

  • Aggression

  • Continuous drooling

  • Muscle spasm/tremor

  • Widened eyes

  • Irritability

Paralytic Stage

The last stage of the rabies virus in cats is the paralysis stage. This mostly occurs on the seventh day depending on your cat’s size or the nature of the bite. At this stage, your cat will develop paralysis along the throat and mouth muscles—leading to inability to move the jaws.

cat hold by owner at veterinarians cabinet ready to have a vaccination injection.

When this happens, your cat will have difficulty swallowing saliva—leading to excessive drooling and difficulty in breathing. Since your cat is unable to feed, what happens next is that the infection slowly circulates to the rest of the body, resulting in death in a matter of hours.

How to Diagnose Rabies in Cats

How is rabies diagnosed in cats? Now, if you discovered that your cat has any of the above signs, the first thing you need to do is call your local vet for an immediate examination. In fact, rather than waiting around for the signs to show themselves, it would be best if you could react immediately when your pet has been bitten or scratched by wild animals, dogs, or other cats with unknown medical history.

In case the rabies symptoms are already visible in your cat, safely lock her inside a cage or call for help if you’re not confident enough. Always be careful when handling your cat as a little provocation can make her moody and aggressive—something which might force her to scratch or bite your arms. In short, realize that you’re not dealing with the cat you used to know.

Veterinarian examining cat in surgery

When your cat is taken to a vet early enough, what happens is that your feline is immediately quarantined in a locked cage for a period of 10 days for a thorough checkup and reevaluation to determine whether she’s infected or not.

During this time, your vet will peruse your cat’s medical history as well as check the last time she had a rabies vaccine. In addition to that, if possible your vet will require you to submit the medical data of the animal that bit your feline to better understand how severe the condition is.

Now, although we might consider going for a clinical diagnosis, the most reliable diagnosis on determining whether a cat has rabies is through testing body fluids such as the saliva, urine, skin, and brain fluids (but not blood).

How to Treat Rabies in Cats

According to most professional vets, there’s no treatment for rabies once your feline friend is heavily affected. But I would like to give you hope by mentioning that treating rabies in cats is possible when it’s detected at an early stage.

a cat getting an antibiotic at the vet cabinet

What happens is that your vet will administer a rabies booster shot or anti-rabies vaccine immediately. If the shot is administered before the virus advances to the nervous system, then your cat has a high chance of getting better.

The rabies booster shot contains antibodies that when injected into your cat’s body encourages the immune system to produce antigens that fight off the rabies virus. After your cat is vaccinated, she is then placed under surveillance for a series of observations over a period of 45 days.

How Can Rabies be Prevented?

Like we mentioned earlier, most vets emphasize that rabies in cats cannot be cured. However, there is a precise way of controlling this dangerous virus—which is by way of prevention. Prevention is better than cure, and here’s how you can keep your feline friend free from the threat of rabies:

Regular Vaccination

The most cost-effective way of keeping your cat free from rabies is by regular vaccination. In some countries, vaccination is a key requirement, while in others, it’s required by law according to the prevailing regulations.

A cat getting a booster vaccination at the vets

Keeping an up-to-date record of the vaccination is required for purposes of perusal or as a proof in case a rabid animal bites your cat. According to professional vets, the rabies vaccine can be administered either yearly, every two years, or every three years.

Vaccinating your cat against rabies doesn’t just protect your cat, but it also protects other animals as well as humans from contracting the virus. Even if they develop symptoms of the disease, vaccinated cats have a higher chance of recovering from rabies as compared to unvaccinated cats since their immune system is already strong and well prepared for any uncertainty.

Keep Your Cat Indoors

To further reduce the chances of your cat contracting rabies, professional vets recommend cat owners to keep their pets indoors or under a close watch if they really need to go outdoors. When your cat is indoors, the chances of them getting infected is reduced as there is less contact with wildlife, raccoons, dogs, and other cats that carry the rabies virus.

Keep Unfamiliar Animals Away from Your Yard

Finally, keeping wild or unfamiliar animals away from your yard is another way to protect your cat against rabies. Wild animals such as foxes, skunks, and raccoons are highly recognized for transmitting the rabies virus. Therefore, keeping them away as much as possible will allow your pets to stay safe even when they’re playing or hunting outdoors.

A squirrel wanting to get in the yard

Among the most notable ways of keeping unfamiliar animals away from your yard include:

  • Installing a tight fence

  • Pruning all trees and shrubberies around the yard

  • Making sure there are no hiding spots for foxes or raccoons

Wrap Up

Rabies is transmitted when an infected cat bites or scratches an uninfected animal, causing the virus to circulate within days. Rabies is mostly disseminated via the saliva of an infected animal. Once the virus has been injected into the body of a cat, it immediately spreads throughout the body—concentrating heavily on the muscle cells and the entire nervous system. After a month or two, the virus incubates, and this is where you begin noticing unusual signs and symptoms that indicate your cat is rabid.

It’s always said that prevention is better than cure. In our case here, the best way to keep our feline free from rabies is through prevention. Take them to the vet for regular vaccination. When your feline is properly vaccinated, she is not the only one that will be safe. The entire family will be safe in case she bites or scratches someone.

beautiful cute cat playing with woman hand and biting on stylish bed with funny emotions

Finally, if you live in places where your cat is at a high risk of contracting rabies—such as places with a lot of wild dogs or other wildlife—other protective measures you’ll need to take include: fencing your yard to keep wildlife away, strictly locking your cats indoors, and finally, disinfecting your yard with a household bleach solution to wash away saliva and other fluids from infected animals.

Now, having covered everything you need to know about rabies, we would like to ask you one question: was this guide helpful? Did we cover everything you needed to know with regards to rabies? If so, please give us your feedback by placing a comment below. In case you have something extra to share, please don’t hesitate to speak to us.

About the author
Martha Harvey
Martha Harvey

Martha Harvey is a skilled veterinarian and a member of American Veterinary Medical Association from Greeley, Colorado. She has 20 years experience of working in Animal Hospital. Martha loves all of her patients, but her favorite one is the Russian Blue cat Stitch, who lives with her.

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