Do Cats Need Rabies Shots in California? The Answer May Surprise You

Introduction

Rabies is a deadly viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including cats, dogs, and humans. It is spread through the bite or scratch of an infected animal and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. There is no cure for rabies, but it can be prevented through vaccination.

In the United States, rabies vaccination is an important part of responsible pet ownership and public health. While the U.S. has been successful in controlling the spread of rabies in dogs, rabies remains prevalent among wildlife populations like raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks. Unvaccinated pets that come into contact with infected wildlife are at risk of getting rabies and transmitting it to humans.

According to the WHO, rabies causes approximately 59,000 human deaths worldwide each year, with 95% of cases occurring in Africa and Asia https://www.who.int/health-topics/rabies. Vaccinating domestic animals like cats is a key strategy for preventing human rabies deaths.

Rabies Vaccine Laws in California

According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the State of California requires that dogs over 4 months of age be vaccinated for rabies (1). This requirement is part of the California Health and Safety Code Section 121690, which establishes rabies vaccination requirements for dogs in the state.

Specifically, the law states that dogs 4 months of age or older must be vaccinated against rabies and must receive a booster one year after the initial vaccination. After that, dog owners must obtain rabies vaccination boosters for their dogs every three years. These requirements apply to all dogs, regardless of whether they are indoor or outdoor pets.

The rabies vaccination requirements for dogs help prevent the spread of the potentially deadly rabies virus. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, so vaccination of dogs is a key prevention strategy. By mandating rabies vaccination, the state aims to reduce the risk of rabid animal exposures and human rabies cases.

Rabies Vaccine Recommendations for Cats

Major veterinary associations provide recommendations for rabies vaccination in cats. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends that all cats receive a rabies vaccination, unless there is a specific medical reason not to vaccinate the cat (AVMA, n.d.). They advise following the vaccine manufacturer’s instructions for timing of the initial vaccination and boosters.

More specific recommendations come from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). Their 2020 Feline Vaccination Guidelines state that all cats should receive an initial rabies vaccine at 12-16 weeks of age, then another one year later (AAHA & AAFP, 2020). After that, rabies boosters are recommended every three years for indoor cats in the United States. The guidelines note that local and state laws may require more frequent rabies vaccination.

These major veterinary associations agree that rabies vaccination is a core part of preventive care for cats. Following their recommendations helps protect cats from this fatal viral disease that can spread to humans.

Local Rabies Vaccine Laws for Cats

In California, there is no statewide law requiring cats to be vaccinated for rabies. However, some counties and cities have local ordinances requiring cat rabies vaccination. The most notable local rabies vaccination requirements are in Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles County has an ordinance requiring all cats age 4 months or older residing in unincorporated areas as well as incorporated cities to be vaccinated for rabies and licensed (if the city requires it) [1]. Cats must receive an initial rabies vaccine that is good for one year. They must then receive booster vaccines that are good for 3 years. Some cities in LA County, like Los Angeles, Burbank, and Santa Monica, enforce the county’s cat rabies vaccine ordinance.

Not all cities in LA County require cat rabies shots. For example, Long Beach, Pasadena, and a few other cities have their own animal control ordinances that do not require cat rabies vaccination [2].

In summary, cats living in unincorporated LA County and certain cities are legally required to get rabies shots on an ongoing basis. However, some LA County cities exempt cats from rabies vaccine requirements.

Enforcing Rabies Vaccination

Rabies vaccination laws in California are primarily enforced at the local level by animal control agencies. According to the California Department of Public Health, animal control officers have the authority to ensure pets, especially dogs, are properly vaccinated against rabies [1]. They can request proof of rabies vaccination during routine checks, inspections, and investigations of bite incidents.

If a dog or cat is found to be noncompliant with rabies vaccination requirements, the owner may be subject to fines or penalties. For example, Los Angeles County imposes a $20 – $200 penalty for each unvaccinated animal, with increasing fines for repeat violations [2]. Officials may also impound the animal until it can be vaccinated. Refusing to comply with rabies laws can potentially result in misdemeanor charges.

Enforcement helps ensure rabies vaccination rates stay high enough to prevent the spread of the fatal rabies virus in pet and human populations. While penalties exist, most owners want to properly vaccinate their pets for their health and safety. Proper education and low-cost vaccination clinics can also encourage voluntary compliance with rabies laws.

Cost of Rabies Vaccination

The cost of rabies vaccination for cats in California can vary depending on the specific vaccine, the vet clinic, and additional services bundled. However, on average the rabies vaccine alone costs between $6-18 at most vet clinics.

For example, Contra Costa County charges $6 for the rabies vaccine for cats [1]. Vetco Clinics in California offer the rabies vaccine for $15 as part of their basic vaccine package for cats over 12 weeks old [2]. Sky Canyon Animal Hospital in California provides the rabies vaccine for cats for $18 [3].

So in summary, pet owners can expect to pay $15-20 on average just for the rabies vaccine itself per visit to the vet. Additional services or exam fees may increase the total cost. But the rabies vaccine remains an affordable, life-saving preventative care measure for cats in California.

Rabies Vaccine Schedule

The recommended rabies vaccination schedule for cats in California is an initial vaccination at 12-16 weeks of age, with a booster 1 year later. After that, rabies boosters are required every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine used and local laws.

Kittens should receive their first rabies shot at 12-16 weeks of age, no earlier. Most rabies vaccines for cats are labeled for a 1-year or 3-year duration of immunity. If a 1-year rabies vaccine is given initially, a booster is required 1 year later. If a 3-year rabies vaccine is given, a booster is required 3 years later. After the initial booster, cats need to receive rabies boosters before the previous vaccine expires in order to maintain continuous protection.

Some counties and cities in California may have laws requiring rabies boosters every 1-2 years, which override the 3-year vaccine labels. Check with your local animal control agency for rabies vaccine requirements in your jurisdiction. The rabies vaccination certificate should indicate the vaccine type, date given, and date the immunity expires to ensure compliance.

Veterinarians typically recommend administering the first rabies vaccine at the same time as the last kitten booster of core vaccines, around 16-20 weeks of age. Giving the rabies vaccine simultaneously helps provide early immunity against the deadly rabies virus (PetMD).

Rabies Vaccine Exemptions

There are some exemptions to the rabies vaccine requirements in California. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Rabies Vaccination Exemption guidelines, exemptions are only valid for 1 year and an application must be submitted each year for renewal. Permanent exemptions do not exist in California.

The County of Orange notes that as of January 1, 2012, California State Law began allowing rabies vaccination exemptions if approved by the Local Health Officer (LHO). More details can be found on the County of Orange Rabies Exemption Request page.

According to the LA County Rabies Exemption Guidelines, exemptions are only for dogs and California does not accept positive rabies titers in lieu of a rabies vaccine.

Importance of Rabies Prevention

Rabies is an almost always fatal viral disease that can spread between animals and humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rabies kills approximately 59,000 people worldwide each year, mostly in Africa and Asia (1). While human rabies deaths are rare in the United States, with only 1-3 cases per year, the virus continues to circulate in wild animal populations (2).

Because rabies has a near 100% fatality rate once symptoms appear, vaccination of pets and prompt post-exposure prophylaxis after bites are critical public health measures (3). Routine rabies vaccination of dogs alone is estimated to save hundreds of thousands of human lives every year by reducing rabies transmission (4).

In the U.S., vaccination requirements for pets have kept domestic dogs and cats from being significant sources of rabies transmission. Maintaining high rabies vaccination rates in pets protects family pets, public health, and prevents the need for expensive state and local rabies control programs.

Sources:

(1) https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/world/index.html

(2) https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/usa/

(3) https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/medical_care/index.html

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6300480/

Conclusion

In summary, while rabies vaccination is not an absolute legal requirement for cats across all of California, it is highly recommended by veterinarians and public health officials. The risks posed by rabies far outweigh any potential side effects of vaccination. By staying up-to-date on your cat’s rabies shots as recommended by your vet, you are protecting your pet’s health and playing a role in the larger public health effort to control and eventually eliminate this fatal disease. Most cities and counties in California have local laws requiring rabies vaccination for cats, with exemptions in some cases for indoor-only cats. But even for indoor cats, the rabies vaccine provides vital protection in case they accidentally escape. Work with your vet to ensure your cat receives their first rabies shot by 16 weeks of age and remains current throughout their life.

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