Despite the fact that rabies is one of the most well known viruses affecting animals, vaccination programs have virtually eliminated rabies infections in humans. In 2006, there were nearly 45,000 cases of exposure to rabies but only 3 cases of human infection. Nevertheless, rabies is a serious virus that has no treatment. In fact, once the disease begins to develop death is a near certainty as it is very rare for animals or humans to survive the virus even with intensive medical care.
Cats are at higher risk of rabies, especially outdoor cats, because they are more likely to come in contact with an infected animal. Rabies is transmitted when an infected animal bites another animal. Skunks, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and bats commonly carry the virus and are the most likely suspects when it comes to transmitting the virus. Most veterinarians will tell you that being bitten by a rabies-infected animal doesn’t ensure that your cat will develop rabies. In fact, it has been estimated that only about 15% of cats exposed to rabies will contract the illness.
There are several symptoms associated with rabies in cats and they generally appear in a series of stages. As the virus moves through the nerves from the location of the bite to the brain, few symptoms are apparent. Generally speaking, rabies in cats will have an incubation period between 2 and 6 weeks and in some cases as long as 6 months. The first phase of infection is called the prodromal phase and it is associated with symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, isolation and even fever. During the next phase, the furious phase, cats with rabies become restless, irritable, and sometimes vicious. Some cats with rabies will die during this phase. The final phase of rabies in cats is the paralytic phase. Cats have more saliva and cannot swallow. Breathing becomes labored and facial muscles become paralyzed.
If you suspect your cat has come in contact with a rabid animal or if you notice bite or scratch marks, visit your veterinarian immediately.