Rabies in cats - the words alone strike fear into most cat owners. Here we take a look at the signs and symptoms of the disease, what to do about scratches, bites and vaccination and the action to take if you think your cat has rabies.
Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system of warm-blooded animals that includes humans and cats.
The virus causes inflammation in the brain, paralysis and death, and is generally transmitted through the bites of infected animals.
It's found in land animals in most countries of the world. In North America the disease is most often spread by coyotes, raccoons and skunks; in Europe it's generally spread by foxes.
It's currently not present in land animals in the United Kingdom and some parts of Scandinavia, nor in Australia, New Zealand or Japan. Very occasional cases have come about in these countries through infection by bats, but they're rare.
In humans the disease is generally fatal if not treated before the onset of any symptoms, so if contact with a rabid animal is suspected it's essential to get treatment immediately.
Early signs of the disease include weakness, fever and headache, which can later develop into sleeplessness, stress, difficulty swallowing, paralysis, a morbid fear of water and an increase in saliva production.
This increase in saliva is what causes dogs with the disease to drool uncontrollably, although this doesn't generally happen in humans or cats.
In un-vaccinated animals, there's no cure.
The virus lives in the saliva of infected animals, and although the virus isn't able to get through unbroken skin, it can enter the body through open wounds or scratches, as well as through the mucous membranes, like those in the eyes or mouth.
So licks, and more particularly, bites from infected animals can spread rabies in cats.
The virus gets into the nervous system through nerve endings in the skin. It then travels up the nerve to the spinal cord, through which it travels up to the brain.
From the brain, the rabies virus travels through the nerves leading to the salivary glands and into the saliva, from where it can be spread through a bite to another infected animal.
Until the virus reaches the brain a cat will show no symptoms of the disease.
The period of incubation for rabies in cats can be anywhere from ten days to around fifty days (on average, around eighteen days) before the cat shows any signs of infection.
Spotting rabies in cats you suspect may be infected can be difficult in the very early stages, and unfortunately once the more obvious symptoms appear it may already be too late to do anything about it.
The first thing you'll notice in a cat with rabies is a change in behavior. Some cats become more aggressive, others become more friendly than usual. There's a tendency at this stage for cats to hide away in dark corners.
This period is generally quite short, lasting only one or sometimes two days. After this, cats will become very aggressive and bite and scratch without warning. Their throat muscles will become paralysed, and they will have difficulty eating and drinking.
This stage (which lasts on average two to four days) is then followed by a day or two when cats will have convulsions and paralysis, followed by coma and eventually death.
Swab the bite area immediately with disinfectant and rinse with lots of water.
It is then urgent that you seek medical help for yourself and veterinary attention for your pet.
A vaccination program is available for humans bitten by rabid animals during the early stages of the disease. Unfortunately for our poor cats, however, once the symptoms of rabies in cats become apparent, the disease is always fatal.
A cat with suspected rabies will be quarantined for observation.
In the UK, cats are not vaccinated against rabies unless they are being taken out of the country.
In the USA, rabies vaccinations are mandatory in most states.
They are generally given to kittens between eight and twelve weeks old, with a follow-up booster a year later and on-going regular vaccination every two or three years after that, depending on local legislation.
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Information provided on this website is not intended to replace professional advice. If you have any concerns at all about your cat's health, please consult a veterinarian.
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