Do Cats With Rabies Drink Water?

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including cats. It is spread through the bite or scratch of an infected animal and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Rabies causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, leading to a variety of neurological symptoms.

In cats, common symptoms of rabies include behavior changes, loss of appetite, weakness, disorientation, seizures, paralysis, and hydrophobia (fear of water). The rabies virus travels to the brain via peripheral nerves, where it causes encephalitis and neuronal dysfunction. Eventually, it leads to respiratory failure and death.

A unique symptom of rabies in mammals is hydrophobia or an intense fear of water. The muscles in the throat seized up when attempting to swallow, which makes drinking water painful and difficult. Hydrophobia occurs in 60-80% of rabid mammals, making it a classic sign of rabies infection.

Rabies Virus Effects

The rabies virus is a neurotropic virus that primarily affects the central nervous system. After an animal or person is bitten, the virus travels through the nerves towards the spinal cord and brain. According to the CDC, once the virus reaches the brain and spinal cord, it causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, known as acute encephalomyelitis. This inflammation causes damage to the nervous system.

Specifically, the rabies virus infects neurons and affects neurotransmitters. The Merck Manual states that “Inflammation of the brainstem nuclei responsible for autonomic functions and neurotransmitter production causes the hyperactivity and excitability characteristic of rabies.” This interference with normal brain functioning leads to a variety of symptoms.

A notable effect of the rabies virus is hydrophobia or fear of water. The CDC explains that this results from painful spasms in the throat when swallowing liquids. The brain malfunction caused by rabies also leads to unusual aggression and hyperactivity in infected animals. Overall, by attacking the central nervous system, the rabies virus dramatically alters brain function and behavior.

Rabies Symptoms in Cats

Rabies causes a variety of neurological symptoms in cats as the virus attacks the central nervous system. Some of the most common rabies symptoms seen in cats include:

Irritability and aggression: Rabid cats often undergo a dramatic personality change, becoming irritable, restless, and aggressive. A normally docile cat may suddenly attack or bite with little provocation. The agitation and excitability worsens as the disease progresses (1).

Lethargy and fever: As rabies advances, cats fall into a paralytic or dumb form of the disease. They become increasingly lethargic, depressed, and weak. Fever is also common (2).

Loss of appetite: Rabid cats lose interest in food and water as swallowing becomes difficult. They may drool excessively and be unable to eat (3).

Hydrophobia: One of the most distinctive symptoms of rabies is hydrophobia, an intense fear of water. Rabid cats may panic, scream, or convulse when presented with water (1).

Paralysis: In the final stages of infection, cats become paralyzed starting from the site of the bite or scratch. Complete paralysis leads to coma and death (2).

Early diagnosis and treatment is key to saving a rabid cat’s life. Any sudden behavioral changes in cats should prompt an immediate trip to the veterinarian. Rabies is almost always fatal once clinical signs appear, so prevention through vaccination is critical.


Hydrophobia, meaning “fear of water”, is a key clinical sign of rabies in humans and animals. It is characterized by painful spasms in the throat when swallowing liquids, which can make drinking water or other fluids difficult or impossible.

Hydrophobia occurs due to paroxysmal contractions of the pharynx and larynx. The rabies virus affects the nervous system, leading to hyperactivity and uncontrolled convulsions of the muscles in the throat. This makes swallowing extremely difficult and painful [1].

As a result of the throat spasms, those infected with rabies develop an intense fear of water and liquids. The sight, sound, or thought of water can trigger excruciatingly painful spasms. This causes sufferers to avoid drinking, even when they are desperately thirsty, leading to the term “hydrophobia” [2].

Water Consumption

There is some conflicting evidence on whether cats with rabies drink water or not. This is mainly due to the different stages of infection.

In the early excitative stages, the cat may appear overly excited and actually drink more water than usual. However, as the disease progresses to the paralytic stage, drinking water becomes difficult and the cat can lapse into a coma.

The classic symptom of rabies is hydrophobia or fear of water. Some sources state that any animal with rabies will exhibit hydrophobia and avoid drinking. However, others argue that it is not necessarily the fear of water itself, but rather the inability to swallow that prevents the cat from drinking.

So in summary, water consumption depends on the individual cat and the exact stage of rabies infection. Some may still lap water in the early stages while others will be unable to drink at all in the later paralytic phase.


Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies once a cat begins showing symptoms. Rabies is almost always fatal within 10 days after symptoms start. The virus attacks the nervous system and causes inflammation in the brain, leading to death.

The key to saving a cat’s life is prevention through vaccination. Rabies vaccines provide protection by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against the rabies virus. Vets recommend keeping rabies vaccinations current for all cats. If an unvaccinated cat is exposed to a rabid animal, vaccination can prevent the virus from taking hold if administered promptly.

If a cat has a potential rabies exposure, vets will institute a strict 45-day quarantine period. The cat must stay confined and away from other pets and people during this time. Quarantine allows time for rabies symptoms to appear if an infection is present. Vets will administer a rabies vaccine during quarantine as an added preventative measure.


Preventing rabies in cats is extremely important to avoid this fatal disease. The most effective prevention method is ensuring cats receive regular rabies vaccinations. The CDC recommends keeping rabies vaccines up-to-date for all cats, ferrets, and dogs. Kittens should receive their first rabies vaccination at 12-16 weeks of age, with a booster 1 year later. After that, rabies vaccines should be boosted every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine and veterinarian’s recommendations.

In addition to vaccination, preventing contact between cats and wild animals that may carry rabies is key. Cats should be kept indoors and not allowed to roam freely. Stray animals should not be brought home. Any wounds from encounters with wild animals should be reported to a veterinarian immediately. If a cat sustains a bite from a potentially rabid animal, post-exposure rabies vaccinations may be administered within a short window to prevent the disease from developing.

With proper preventative care and limiting exposure, rabies can be avoided in cats. However, if any signs of rabies develop, immediate veterinary care is essential.

Risks to Humans

Rabies is most commonly transmitted to humans through bites from infected animals. According to the CDC, bites account for up to 99% of rabies cases in humans. Once the rabies virus is introduced via a bite, it travels through the nerves to the brain and causes disease. This is why timely post-exposure prophylaxis is essential after potentially being exposed to rabies.

The main way to treat a potential rabies exposure is by administering both the rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin (RIG) as soon as possible after the bite. The rabies vaccine helps the body develop immunity against the rabies virus. Rabies immunoglobulin provides immediate, short-term protection until the vaccine becomes effective. Together, these two treatments can prevent the onset of rabies if given promptly after exposure.

According to the WHO, rabies causes tens of thousands of deaths worldwide every year. However, human rabies deaths are rare in countries like the United States where canine rabies vaccination and awareness programs are common. Still, potential exposures should always be taken seriously and treated right away to prevent this fatal disease.


In summary, rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. The rabies virus is primarily spread through bites from infected animals like dogs, bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes.

One of the key symptoms of rabies in animals is hydrophobia or fear of water. Rabid animals exhibit anxiety and spasms in the throat when trying to swallow liquids. However, they still feel the biological urge to drink and may make repeated attempts to consume water even though it induces muscle spasms.

There are still open questions around the exact mechanisms behind hydrophobia and more research is needed to fully understand rabies pathology. While rabies remains incurable once symptomatic, the disease is preventable in humans through prompt wound cleansing and vaccination after exposure.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Rabies.” Accessed [date].

[2] World Health Organization. “Rabies.” Accessed [date].

[3] American Veterinary Medical Association. “Rabies.” Accessed [date].

[4] The Humane Society of the United States. “Rabies in Cats.” Accessed [date].

[5] Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. “Clinical Update on Rabies Diagnosis in Cats.” Accessed [date].

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