Can An Indoor Cat Carry Rabies?

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including cats, dogs, bats, raccoons, and humans (source). The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva, usually from the bite or scratch of an infected animal. Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal. While rabies in domestic cats is relatively rare in developed countries, the question arises whether an indoor cat with no exposure to infected wildlife can acquire this deadly disease. This article examines the risks and transmission modes specifically for indoor house cats.

How Rabies Spreads

Rabies mainly spreads through bites or scratches from an infected animal that transfers saliva into the wound. According to the CDC, “Rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact (such as through broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth) with saliva or neural tissue from an infected animal.”

The main route of rabies transmission is when saliva from an infected animal enters the body of another through a bite wound. The CDC explains the path of the virus: “An animal is bitten by a rabid animal. Rabies virus from the infected saliva enters the wound. Rabies virus travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and brain.”

In rare cases, contamination of open wounds or mucous membranes with saliva or other potentially infectious material (such as neural tissue) from a rabid animal can also transmit rabies. However, transmission mainly occurs via bites and scratches that allow the virus to enter the body through contact with infected saliva.


Which Animals Carry Rabies

Rabies is most commonly found in wild animals such as foxes, raccoons, skunks, and bats in the United States. According to the CDC, these animals are considered the primary reservoirs that transmit the rabies virus through their saliva after becoming infected. However, rabies can infect any mammal, including pets like cats and dogs and farm animals like cows and horses if they are exposed to rabid animals.

Specifically, rabies is most often seen in foxes in the Eastern and North Central United States. Raccoons frequently carry rabies in the Eastern states as well. Skunks are the most reported rabid animals on the West Coast, while bats are now the most common source of human rabies infections in the U.S., especially with strains associated with the silver-haired and eastern pipistrelle bat species.

It’s important to note that any warm-blooded species can become infected with rabies since the disease is transmitted through infected saliva. Wild animals like coyotes, wolves, and jackals are common carriers around the world. Rodents like squirrels, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, rats and rabbits and small pets like ferrets are also susceptible, though rabies is rarer in those species.

Rabies in Cats

Cats are susceptible to rabies infection just like dogs and wild animals. Rabies is most commonly spread through bites from infected animals. Outdoor cats are at a higher risk of exposure since they come into contact with other animals more frequently. However, indoor cats can also become infected if an infected animal gets into the home or yard.

According to the VCA Animal Hospitals, rabies is “is a viral disease that can infect all warm-blooded animals, including cats and people.”[1] The Merck Veterinary Manual states that “Rabies is an acute viral infection of the nervous system that affects mainly carnivores and bats, although it can affect any mammal.”[2] So while outdoor cats are at a higher risk, indoor cats are still susceptible to rabies infection if exposed.

All cats should be vaccinated for rabies as kittens and receive boosters as adults per veterinary recommendations. Even though indoor cats have less exposure risks, rabies vaccines help protect cats in case an infected animal ever gains access indoors. Rabies is almost always fatal once clinical signs appear, so vaccination is critical.

Transmission Risks for Indoor Cats

There are a few ways an indoor cat may become exposed to the rabies virus:

Through contact with an infected animal that gets indoors. While rare, bats or rodents infected with rabies could find their way into a home and expose the cat. Bats in particular can carry rabies and their small size enables them to get into houses through tiny openings.

If the cat escapes outside. Indoor cats that accidently get outside are at risk of encountering a rabid wild animal. Even a brief escape could result in exposure if the cat has an altercation with an infected animal.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, while the risk is low, rabies vaccinations are still recommended for indoor cats in case they escape or have contact with an infected animal that gets indoors (source). Maintaining current rabies vaccinations can help protect indoor cats in these unlikely situations.

Protecting Indoor Cats

While the risk of rabies exposure is lower for indoor cats, it’s still important to take precautions to protect them. The primary way to protect indoor cats from rabies is through vaccination. According to veterinarians at Cornell University, “All cats, even indoor cats, should receive the rabies vaccination and booster to avoid the various unwanted risks and consequences associated with skipping vaccinations.”

The rabies vaccine is highly effective at protecting cats if they are ever exposed to the virus. Most rabies vaccines provide immunity for 1-3 years, after which cats require a booster shot for continued protection (1). Indoor cats should follow the same rabies vaccination schedule as outdoor cats. Kittens receive an initial vaccination around 12-16 weeks old, with a booster 1 year later. After that, boosters are given every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine used (2).

In addition to vaccination, other precautions can help protect indoor cats. Stray animals should never be allowed indoors, as they may carry rabies without showing symptoms. Indoor cats should wear a collar with ID tags in case they accidentally escape outside. Following these guidelines helps minimize the rabies risk for cats even if they never venture outdoors.



Signs of Rabies in Cats

Cats infected with rabies will show behavioral changes as one of the first signs of the disease. Rabid cats often act restless, anxious, and irritable. They may hide from people and other animals, become aggressive and attack for no reason, or demonstrate uncharacteristic affection or docility. Difficulty swallowing is another early symptom, which leads to excessive salivation or drooling. As the disease progresses, rabid cats may begin to show partial paralysis, usually starting in the hind legs and tail. Seizures are also common, as is loss of muscle control in the face and head. Ultimately, rabies leads to complete paralysis, inability to eat or drink, coma, and death within 10 days after the first signs appear.


Diagnosing Rabies

The only definitive way to diagnose rabies in cats is through laboratory testing of brain tissue after death. According to VCA Hospitals, rabies can only be diagnosed by direct examination of the brain. There is no blood test or other diagnostic exam that can diagnose rabies in a living cat.

If a veterinarian suspects rabies, they will first perform a thorough physical exam on the cat. They will look for symptoms associated with rabies like aggression, difficulty swallowing, paralysis, seizures, and excessive salivation or drooling. The vet may also collect saliva or skin samples to test for rabies antibodies, but these tests cannot definitively confirm rabies.

According to PetMD, if rabies is strongly suspected, the cat may need to be humanely euthanized so the brain can be tested. After death, a veterinarian will remove the cat’s brain and examine samples under a microscope. Finding evidence of the rabies virus in the brain tissue will confirm diagnosis.

While rabies testing in cats can only be done post-mortem, prompt veterinary care is still critical. A vet can help treat symptoms, offer supportive care, and control the risk of transmission.

Treating a Rabies-Infected Cat

Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for rabies once a cat begins showing symptoms. Rabies is nearly always fatal. For this reason, euthanasia is typically recommended if a cat is diagnosed with rabies.

Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system. Once clinical signs appear, the rabies virus has already made its way into the brain via the nerves (VCA Hospitals). At this stage, the disease is untreatable and almost always progresses rapidly to death within 10 days (WebMD).

While researchers continue working to find an effective cure for rabies, currently no post-exposure treatment has been proven successful once the virus reaches an animal’s nervous system. Even with intensive and dedicated supportive care in a hospital, most rabid animals succumb to the disease (VCA Hospitals).

For the safety of other pets and people, euthanasia is advised once the clinical signs of rabies become evident. This prevents further transmission and spares the suffering animal a distressed death. While extremely difficult, euthanizing a rabies-infected cat is typically the most humane option (Small Door Veterinary).

Prevention through vaccination remains the best way to protect cats against this fatal illness. Sustained efforts to vaccinate domestic animals and wildlife can help control the threat of rabies spreading in the future (VCA Hospitals).


To summarize, while rare, it is possible for an indoor cat to contract rabies if they come into contact with an infected animal that enters the home. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, so prevention is critical.

Indoor cats can become exposed to rabies by interacting with infected bats that enter the home or are brought inside by people. Cats may also contract rabies if they escape outdoors and have contact with wildlife carrying the virus.

While the chances of an indoor cat getting rabies are very low, it’s still important to vaccinate cats and keep their shots up-to-date. This provides protection in case they are ever exposed. Being aware of the signs of rabies and seeking prompt veterinary care is also essential.

With proper prevention measures, rabies in indoor cats is extremely rare. But pet owners must remain vigilant, as rabies is fatal if not treated quickly. Keeping cats indoors, vaccinated, and away from wildlife are the best ways to protect them from this dangerous disease.

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