Thursday, June 28, 2012

An Up-Close Look at Rabies in Cats

"Could That Cat Have Rabies?"

Summertime brings multiple news reports of rabid cats in communities all over the country. While rabies can occur at any time of the year, there do seem to be more cases in summer.

But how can you tell whether a cat you encounter has rabies? If you care for feral colonies, spend time in wilderness areas, or live in an area where cats tend to roam outdoors, you could come into contact with a rabid cat.

Here are 18 symptoms to look for that would indicate a cat is suffering from rabies, listed more or less in order of progression of the disease:

  • Licking a bite wound. Since rabies is spread by the bite of an infected animal, a cat who has contracted it would have a bite wound. The disease would cause them to constantly lick at this wound. The bite may occur up to a month before more rabies symptoms occur.
  • Flu-like symptoms. The first stages of rabies actually make it difficult to diagnose, as they resemble many upper respiratory infections (URIs) seen in cats. There will likely be fever, although you're not going to get close enough to an unfamiliar cat to take its temperature! This "prodromal" stage of rabies usually only lasts for 1-2 days before it progresses further.
  • Anxiety. The cat may withdraw more than usual or seem jumpier than normal, as though the senses are heightened and everything is startling. The virus is affecting the cat's central nervous system (CNS), causing erratic behavior.
  • Dilated pupils. A side-effect of anxiety, you may notice the cat's pupils appearing abnormally enlarged.
  • Confusion. The cat may look around as though it doesn't recognize its surroundings, other cats, or people who are usually familiar. 
  • Restlessness. As the disease progresses to the "furious" phase, the cat will start to appear even more anxious, unable to keep still for long. Kitty may roam around aimlessly, as though searching for something.
  • Hallucinations. The cat may bite at imaginary things or appear to be watching something in motion that you can't see.
  • Overt aggression. While most feral cats will shy away from humans if escape is possible, one that shows symptoms of aggression when not cornered may be rabid. A cat that is normally quite shy may suddenly become more aggressive, growling at everything and everybody in its vicinity.
  • Lethargy and avoidance. Conversely, a cat that is normally friendly may withdraw or suddenly appear fearful. Whatever the cat's normal demeanor, rabies will reverse it.
  • Seeming "drunk". This indicates more abnormality in kitty's CNS. The cat may walk erratically, stumble, or act odd.
  • Weakness and loss of coordination. This is even worse than the "drunkenness" symptoms listed above, and will progress to paralysis in the final stage of the disease.
  • Eating strange things. Pica is the tendency to eat non-food substances, such as dirt, rocks, or sticks. While many young kittens will put everything in their mouths, just like human babies, if you notice a grown cat doing this, especially if some of these other symptoms are present, the cat may be rabid. Pica on its own, however, may simply be the tendency of some cats and should not be taken as a symptom of rabies if not accompanied by any other symptoms.
  • Seizures. The cat may chew or champ the jaws when not eating, foam at the mouth (the classic rabies image), tremble as though cold, fall over, have jerking motions in the legs, or suddenly urinate and defecate. After seeming a bit out of it for a few moments, the cat may return to a normal state of consciousness, albeit still acting strangely as described in the other symptoms.
  • A dropped jaw. Rabies causes an inability to swallow, so a cat may be drooling and keep the lower jaw dropped to keep from choking on normal saliva production. As the disease progresses, the jaw and throat will become paralyzed.
  • A protruding tongue. In the final stage of the disease, the cat appears thirsty, but is fearful of water if presented with it.
  • A strange meow. As the brain cells and the nerves controlling the larynx become damaged by the disease, the cat may utter an unusual sound. It is not uncommon for cats with dementia to yowl repeatedly. Having never heard the sound a rabid cat makes, I can only imagine that the sound they make would be similar to this, although somewhat compromised by the nerve damage to the larynx.
  • Fear or avoidance of water. Rabies used to be known as "hydrophobia" for this symptom. While many cats tend to dislike being immersed, cats with rabies will become quite agitated around water. This may be due to the paralysis and inability to swallow caused by the disease. Poor kitty recognizes water as a danger of drowning and reacts severely to it.
  • Paralysis. As paralysis reaches the cat's hip area, it may appear to shuffle when walking. When paralysis finally reaches the lungs, the cat can no longer breathe and will die, if an earlier symptom has not already brought about death or the cat has not been euthanized before getting to this stage.
Once symptoms begin, the disease progresses quickly and nothing can be done to save the animal.

How Rabies Affects A Cat's Body

The rabies virus, a member of the Lyssavirus genus of the Rhabdoviridae family of viruses, is transmitted by the bite of an infected animal. Since all mammals are at risk, it can spread rapidly through wild populations of raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and bats. Fortunately, both humans and cats are less susceptible to the disease than are these wild animals...although neither are immune.

Rabies kills by affecting the grey matter of the brain and the CNS. When the virus first enters the cat's body through the bite wound, it replicates in the muscles around the wound. From there, it spreads to adjacent nerve tissue. It then travels via fluid through all types of nervous fiber, including peripheral, sensory, and motor nerves, to the spinal cord, and from there to the brain. Once there, it begins binding itself to the brain's nerve cells, resulting in the symptoms described above. It also causes acute encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. From there, the virus continues traveling to other organs through the body's nerve cells.

The rabies virus is heavily present in an infected animal's saliva, since this is how it spreads to another animal. However, it does not live long outside a host and being exposed to an infected animal's saliva, blood, or feces by themselves are no guarantee of infection. If an animal has died of rabies and another animal breathes the fumes from its decomposing carcass within 24 hours, there is a possibility (albeit slim) of rabies transmission. There have also been reports of rabies being transmitted by inhalation in a cave where numerous rabid bats were living, but these instances are extremely rare.

Avoiding Rabies

Always fatal once contracted, rabies is completely preventable. Make sure your cat is vaccinated for rabies starting at about 4 months old, with annual boosters required for the vaccine to remain effective. While there are rabies shots available that last up to 3 years, there appears to be a connection between these vaccines and cancerous tumors at the site of injection, so annual boosters are likely healthier for your cat.

Keeping proper records of your cat's vaccination could actually save your kitty in another way. If your cat attacks or bites someone and no proof of rabies vaccination is available, your cat will be euthanized for rabies testing. A definitive diagnosis of rabies can only be made by testing the brain of an animal for the virus during autopsy, so it is necessary to euthanize the animal to do this test. Proof of current rabies vaccination will spare your cat from this fate.

Community, or feral, cats managed in Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs should also be vaccinated while being spayed or neutered. This way, it is known that ear-tipped cats are more likely safe from rabies infection. Many feral cats don't live long lives, so a multi-year rabies vaccine may be sufficient to protect them for life. If you manage colonies of cats, you may also talk to your doctor about receiving a prophylactic rabies vaccine for yourself.

Obviously, if you encounter any animal that appears to be rabid, avoid contact with it. It's always better to keep your distance and observe the animal rather than to try handling it. If you can safely contain and quarantine the animal, do so, but do not put yourself or your own cats in danger. Call your local animal control office so that someone who has the necessary equipment to handle the animal can come out to trap it and hold it in quarantine, or have it euthanized for testing. This is automatically done with a wild animal, but a pet will more likely be quarantined for up to 10 days to observe for additional symptoms first.

If you or your cat come into contact with a rabid animal, immediate action is necessary. People bitten or scratched by a rabid animal need to receive a series of injections to prevent catching the disease. Thoroughly wash the wound for several minutes with soap and water, then get to the doctor. Even if your cat has been vaccinated, if a rabid animal attacks your kitty a booster should be given by your veterinarian as soon as possible after exposure to the disease. Once your cat starts exhibiting the symptoms of rabies, there is no cure for the disease and euthanasia is the only option available.

Rabies is a tragic disease and it is pitiful to see any animal affected by it. Summer is when more cases tend to appear. So it's important to know what symptoms to look for, and to be proactive in protecting yourself and your cats from this terrible virus.


  1. If my cat ate a bat. Can it catch rabies???

    1. Not usually, but if your cat starts acting sick, you may want to check with your veterinarian.

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  3. ...This morning we were eating together I got his favorite food it was all normal...It was hot so I let him outside,as I do I notice a nother cat creeping up I thought it would about a minute I rushed outside to see them fighting I didn't notice any bites so I thought I scared the cat off before it could Doo any damage...When I came home from work I came to see him on the roof he was meowing nonstop the roof was not so high so I thought he could jump off he didn't so I got him off he started rolling on the floor and meowing but in a very weird way and sound when I wold get close he wold try to bite me i left him outside​ cuz I was scared he wold bite I got out to feed him I can't find him...Any ideas what's​ wrong with him

    1. I'm not a veterinarian, but that's not good. I see that this post is a few weeks old. If your cat was exposed to rabies, he's likely gone by now. Cats should never be allowed outside in unscreened areas where they can be exposed to animals that have rabies, especially if they have not been vaccinated. There are many dangers outside for cats in addition to rabies: free-roaming dogs that can kill them in an instant, cars, poisons, and even people who would do harm to them. I hope that your cat is okay.

  4. There has been a cat hanging around for the two years since I moved in. It never approaches but lounges in my patio chairs. Sunday it was on my porch, it’s head tilted to the left, it did not seem to be in control of its movements fully. It had become very skinny so I bought it food and gave it water. Today is Thursday, the cat has picked up weight, it’s fur is more glossy it has a tremendous appetite, but it still cannot move normally. I cannot see any damage, but I don’t want to touch it. I thought it might be an inner ear infection, but I fear it could be rabies now. It is not drooling, and it’s jaw is not slack. Any ideas? I’m not a cat owner so I have no idea what could be wrong.

    1. I'm not a veterinarian, so am not sure. Do you have a regular veterinarian you could call for advice? It's probably wise not to approach the kitty, but it sounds like he needs help. Do you have a humane trap where you could catch him and take him to the vet? Sometimes county shelters will loan you a humane trap to catch the kitty.