How Would You Know If A Cat Has Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that can infect all mammals, including cats, dogs, and humans. It attacks the central nervous system and causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord (CDC). Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. There is no cure for rabies, but it can be prevented through vaccination.

The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals, usually through bites. Infected animals can shed the virus in their saliva up to 10 days before showing symptoms. Rabies causes neurological symptoms like aggression, difficulty swallowing, paralysis, seizures, and hallucinations. Initially, symptoms may be nonspecific like fever and lethargy. As the disease progresses, symptoms become more serious.

Rabies is one of the deadliest diseases due to its extremely high fatality rate. However, it is also preventable through vaccination and prompt post-exposure treatment. While rabies in domestic cats is relatively rare compared to wildlife, it is still a serious public health concern due to the potential for human exposure.


Rabies is a viral disease spread through the saliva of infected animals. Cats most commonly get rabies from being bitten or scratched by an infected animal. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of rabid animals and enters the body through breaks in the skin from bites or scratches. Cats can also get rabies if they lick, groom or share food and water bowls with an infected animal.

The animals most likely to transmit rabies to cats include:

  • Bats – Bats are the most common source of rabies infection in cats in the United States.
  • Skunks – Skunks are the most common source of rabies in cats in the northeastern United States.
  • Foxes
  • Raccoons
  • Coyotes

Less common routes of rabies transmission include:

  • Ingestion – Drinking contaminated milk or water.
  • Inhalation – Breathing in the virus.
  • Transplacental – Spread from mother to unborn kittens.

For these reasons, keeping cats indoors and preventing contact with wildlife greatly reduces their risk of contracting rabies.

Initial Symptoms

The initial symptoms of rabies in cats often involve lethargy, fever, and loss of appetite, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual (Merck Veterinary Manual). These symptoms may develop within 2-10 days after a cat has been exposed to the rabies virus. The fever is often only mild at first.

Lethargy refers to an overall lack of energy and interest in normal activities. An infected cat may sleep more than usual and seem tired and inactive. This lethargy often gets progressively worse over the first few days of illness.

Loss of appetite (inappetence) is also common early on. The cat may refuse favorite foods and treats and eat very little overall. Excessive thirst (polydipsia) sometimes accompanies the lack of appetite.

According to PetMD, decreased interaction with owners is another potential early sign as the cat starts to withdraw due to illness.

Later Symptoms

As the disease progresses, cats may experience later more advanced symptoms. The most notable later symptoms of rabies in cats include:

Aggression – Cats infected with rabies often turn aggressive and attack their owners or other animals. They may bite or scratch without warning or provocation.

Seizures – Cats may have seizures or convulsions as the rabies virus affects their central nervous system. Seizures can appear as rapid twitching, shaking, or trembling movements.

Paralysis – Some cats become partially or fully paralyzed, usually starting in the hind legs and progressing to the front legs and face. Rabid cats may drag their hind legs or lose coordination.

Excessive drooling/foaming at the mouth – Thick drool or foam accumulating around the mouth is a characteristic sign of rabies in cats in the later stages. Rabid cats cannot swallow properly.



Rabies can be difficult to diagnose in a living cat. However, vets who suspect rabies will examine the cat thoroughly for symptoms. They will check the mouth and nose for excess salivation, tears, and nasal discharge. They will also observe the cat’s behavior for signs of nervous system disorders like circling, seizures, and paralysis 1.

To confirm rabies, samples of the cat’s saliva and cornea can be tested for rabies virus 2. However, the most definitive diagnostic test is examining the brain tissue after the cat has passed away. Samples of brain tissue can be tested for the rabies antigen using immunofluorescence. Finding the rabies virus in brain tissue confirms the diagnosis of rabies 3.


Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for rabies once a cat begins showing symptoms. The virus affects the cat’s nervous system and brain, inevitably leading to death. According to the VCA Animal Hospitals, “there is no treatment for a cat with rabies infection.”

Supportive veterinary care may help ease some symptoms, but the focus shifts to keeping the cat comfortable and minimizing suffering. Euthanasia is typically recommended once the clinical signs progress, as rabies is fatal in cats.

“Rabies causes such extreme suffering that euthanasia is typically the most humane option for cats that develop clinical signs,” reports WebMD.

While rabies is incurable in symptomatic cats, seeking prompt veterinary care is still crucial to provide comfort care, prevent further transmission, and protect other pets and people.


The most effective way to prevent rabies in cats is through vaccination. Kittens should receive their first rabies vaccine at 12-16 weeks of age, with a booster one year later. Afterward, rabies vaccines should be administered every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine and regulations in your area (CDC, PubMed). Using rabies vaccines like Nobivac or Rabvac helps protect cats according to label recommendations.

It’s also important to avoid contact between cats and wild animals that may be infected, like bats, raccoons, foxes and skunks. Keep cats indoors and supervise any time outside. Trim any bushes or plants around your home that might attract wild animals. Seal any openings larger than a quarter inch so wildlife can’t access your home (VCA Hospitals).

Risk to Humans

Rabies is a deadly virus that can be transmitted from cats to humans through bites and scratches that break the skin. Cats are the most common domestic animal to transmit rabies to humans. According to the CDC, over 90% of rabies cases in humans are caused by contact with infected wildlife like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. However, rabies in cats poses a significant risk to humans as well.

If a rabid cat bites or scratches and breaks the skin, the rabies virus can be transmitted through infected saliva. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten or scratched, as rabies is almost always fatal in humans once symptoms appear. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, and contact your doctor about receiving rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) as soon as possible. PEP consists of a dose of rabies vaccine and in some cases rabies antibodies. PEP is highly effective in preventing rabies if administered promptly after exposure.

While encounters with rabid cats are rare, it’s important to seek medical care for any bite or scratch from an unknown cat. Rabies shots and treatment should not be delayed, as rabies has no cure once symptoms manifest. Take preventative measures by vaccinating cats and avoiding contact with stray or feral cats of unknown health status.


Rabies is nearly 100% fatal in cats once symptoms appear, as there is no treatment at that point for this viral disease that infects the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 10% of cats survive after the rabies virus reaches their brain and signs of the disease become apparent.

However, the outlook for rabies prevention is positive if cats receive vaccination. The rabies vaccine provides excellent protection against the disease and is considered a core vaccine that all pet cats should receive on the recommendation of veterinarians. Keeping rabies vaccinations up to date as recommended by a vet is key to protecting cats from this fatal disease. With proper preventative care, the chances of a cat developing rabies is extremely low.

When to See a Vet

If your cat has been bitten or scratched by a wild animal like a bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox, you should take them to the vet immediately. The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, so any open wound exposes your cat to potential infection. According to the CDC, dogs, cats, and ferrets that have been potentially exposed to rabies and have never been vaccinated should be euthanized or undergo a strict 6 month quarantine. However, if the animal has been vaccinated, it should receive a rabies booster shot within 96 hours of exposure.

You should also watch for initial symptoms like lethargy, loss of appetite, weakness, disorientation, and unusual behavior in your cat after potential exposure. According to VCA Hospitals, these signs can appear within 3-8 weeks after infection. Bring your cat to the vet at the first signs of illness after a potential rabies exposure, as rabies has no treatment once symptoms appear. Immediate action is required.

Finally, take your cat to the vet if you notice symptoms like fever, seizures, paralysis, difficulty swallowing, excessive salivation, and aggression. These are later stage signs of rabies infection, but prompt diagnosis and humane euthanasia may be recommended for the safety of yourself, your family, and community.

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