Can You Get Rabies From Food That A Cat Licked?

Rabies is one of the most feared diseases known to humankind. Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal. However, this deadly disease is also completely preventable through vaccination and prompt treatment.

Rabies has been around for thousands of years. Historical records describe a disease that causes abnormal behavior in animals and is transmittable to humans. In ancient times, rabies was associated with demons, witchcraft and the supernatural due to its bizarre symptoms. The word “rabies” comes from the Latin word for “madness.”

Today, thanks to modern science and medicine, much more is known about how rabies spreads and can be prevented. While human rabies deaths are now rare in the United States, the disease continues to kill tens of thousands of people annually around the world, mostly in Asia and Africa. Understanding the facts about rabies transmission and prevention remains critically important.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a serious and often fatal viral disease that affects the central nervous system. It is caused by a virus called lyssavirus and is spread through the saliva of infected animals. According to the CDC, rabies is found in over 150 countries and causes approximately 59,000 human deaths worldwide each year (CDC). Once symptoms of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal. For this reason, rabies prevention is a crucial public health measure.

The rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact with the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. It can infect all warm-blooded mammals, but dogs are the most common transmitter of the virus to humans. Rabies leads to inflammation of the brain and spinal cord once the virus enters the central nervous system. As the disease progresses, symptoms include fever, headache, hallucinations, paralysis, anxiety, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

Without post-exposure treatment, rabies has a mortality rate of nearly 100%. However, rabies is preventable if treated quickly with a series of vaccinations following exposure. Because of the development of effective rabies vaccines and treatments, human deaths from rabies are now rare in the United States, with only 1-3 cases per year.

How is Rabies Transmitted?

Rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. The main route of rabies transmission is through a bite from a rabid animal. The virus is present in the saliva of rabid animals and gets introduced into a wound from the bite. According to the CDC, “Transmission of rabies virus usually begins when infected saliva of a host is passed to an uninfected animal” (

Less commonly, rabies can be transmitted if the infected saliva of a rabid animal comes into contact with mucous membranes or open wounds. For example, the virus could potentially be transmitted by a scratch from a rabid animal that has saliva on its claws.

In very rare cases, rabies has been transmitted through infected organ transplants. Additionally, rabies infections have occurred in laboratories when workers were exposed to aerosols containing rabies virus or handled infected tissues.

However, the main transmission route is through the bite of an infected animal. The rabies virus is not absorbed through intact skin. Bites are the most effective way for the virus to be transmitted, as the infected saliva has direct access to nerves and blood vessels under the skin.

Can You Get Rabies from Eating Food Licked by a Cat?

It is highly unlikely to contract rabies from eating food that a cat has licked. Rabies is spread primarily through bites from infected animals that transfer virus-laden saliva. According to the CDC, the rabies virus is not stable under natural conditions and cannot be transmitted through eating food contaminated with rabies-infected saliva.

The main route of rabies transmission is through bites that break the skin and allow the virus to enter. The virus must enter directly into broken skin or mucous membranes to cause infection. Swallowing food licked by a cat, even a rabid one, would not provide a sufficient route of entry for the virus in most cases (1).

For rabies transmission to occur from eating contaminated food, the food would have to contain large amounts of fresh infectious saliva that then directly contacted open sores or lesions in the mouth or throat, allowing the virus to penetrate the body. Overall, this is an extremely unlikely sequence of events.

In summary, while theoretically possible under rare circumstances, there is minimal risk of contracting rabies from eating food licked by a cat. The virus would likely be destroyed during digestion, and not directly enter the body through bites or open wounds. Proper food hygiene is still recommended, but rabies transmission solely through ingested food is very improbable (2).



Risk Factors for Rabies Transmission

The rabies virus is mainly transmitted through the bite or scratch of an infected animal. According to WHO,, the saliva of an infected animal can introduce the virus into wounds or skin abrasions of the victim. Bite wounds are the most common method of rabies transmission. Deep puncture wounds are more likely to transmit the virus than light scratches. Since dogs are the most common rabid animals around the world, their bites pose the highest risk of rabies transmission.

The virus can also spread if infected saliva contacts mucous membranes like the eyes, nose or mouth. This makes it important to avoid touching or handling wild animals to prevent contact with infected saliva. In rare cases, rabies has been transmitted through contamination of wounds with infected saliva from bats. Improperly inactivated vaccines for rabies have also caused a small number of cases.

While transmission of rabies between humans is theoretically possible through infected saliva, it is extremely rare. There are only a handful of documented cases. The most common way for humans to get rabies is through the bite or scratch from an infected animal.

Rabies Incubation Period

The rabies incubation period refers to the time between exposure to the rabies virus and when symptoms first appear. According to the CDC, the incubation period for rabies can range from several weeks to several months. In most cases, symptoms of rabies begin to appear within 1-3 months after exposure. However, incubation periods as short as four days and as long as six years have been documented in rare cases.

In general, the rabies incubation period tends to be shorter in children compared to adults. The incubation period also depends on factors like the site of viral entry. For example, bites to highly innervated parts of the body like the face and hands tend to have shorter incubation periods.

It’s important to note that the rabies virus can be transmitted even if the biting animal appeared healthy at the time of exposure. This highlights the importance of promptly seeking medical care for rabies post-exposure prophylaxis if a bite or scratch occurs, regardless of the health status of the animal.

Rabies Symptoms

The first symptoms of rabies often resemble the flu. According to the CDC, rabies symptoms generally include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation

These flu-like symptoms last for 2 to 10 days. After this time, the infection spreads to the brain and nervous system, leading to more dangerous symptoms. As the Mayo Clinic reports, later stage rabies symptoms may include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Partial paralysis

Specifically, those with rabies often exhibit hydrophobia (fear of water), and may become aggressive. They may have seizures and eventually slip into a coma. Death usually occurs within days of these later symptoms appearing.

In rare cases, some people do not have the initial flu-like symptoms, and only exhibit the neurological symptoms of rabies before falling into a coma. Still, aggressive behavior and hyperactivity tend to manifest in the majority of rabies infections.

Rabies Treatment

If a person has been exposed to rabies, post-exposure vaccinations are critical in preventing the disease. According to the CDC, postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) consists of a dose of human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) and rabies vaccine given on the day of the rabies exposure (CDC). The HRIG provides immediate antibodies until the body can respond to the vaccine and make its own antibodies. The rabies vaccine is given in four doses over 14 days. PEP is highly effective in preventing rabies if administered promptly and properly after an exposure.

Previously vaccinated individuals who have been exposed will receive two doses of the rabies vaccine in their deltoid on days 0 and 3 after exposure (Minnesota Department of Health). PEP includes one dose of HRIG and four vaccine doses over two weeks, providing immediate protection from rabies (NYC Health). It’s critical to receive PEP quickly after a potential rabies exposure, as the virus can cause disease once it spreads to the central nervous system.

Rabies Prevention

The most important way to prevent rabies in humans is by vaccinating pets like dogs, cats, and ferrets. According to the CDC, rabies laws require dogs, cats, and ferrets to be vaccinated for rabies. When kept up-to-date, rabies vaccines for pets provide protection and prevent the spread of the disease from animals to humans.

It’s also crucial to avoid contact with wild animals like raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. Wild animals are more likely to be infected with rabies, so it’s best not to handle or feed them. Keep food sources like garbage cans and pet food inside to avoid attracting wild animals. If you find a dead or sick animal, report it to local animal control instead of trying to handle it yourself. This helps prevent potential rabies exposure.

In addition, you should supervise children and pets when outdoors and teach them not to approach unknown animals. This protects them from potential rabies exposure through bites or scratches. Taking preventive measures is key, since rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear.


In summary, while rabies is a serious viral infection that can be transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, the risk of contracting it from food licked by a cat is extremely low. For rabies transmission to occur, the virus must enter a wound from a bite or scratch. Simply ingesting food that has been licked by a potentially infected cat is not sufficient for infection.

The main takeaways are:

  • Rabies is spread through the saliva of infected animals into open wounds or scratches.
  • Eating food licked by a cat is very unlikely to transmit rabies, even if the cat was infected.
  • Bites and scratches from unknown animals should be evaluated for potential rabies risk.
  • Rabies is preventable if treatment is started promptly after exposure.
  • Routine vaccination of pets helps prevent the spread of rabies.

While rabies is a serious public health risk, the odds of contracting it from food licked by a cat are extremely low. With prompt wound care and vaccination of pets, rabies can be effectively prevented and controlled.

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