What Happens If You Get Bitten By a Rabid Cat? The Scary Truth


Rabies is a deadly virus that causes inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) in mammals. It is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected animal, most commonly a dog. Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal unless treated immediately. This article will provide an overview of rabies, explain how cat bites can transmit it to humans, discuss the signs of rabies infection in cats, treatment options, vaccines, what happens if treatment is delayed, and prevention methods. We’ll aim to cover key details around transmission, risks, treatment, and prevention to inform readers about the potential dangers and proper response to a cat bite exposure.

Rabies Virus Overview

Rabies is caused by a virus in the family Rhabdoviridae that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva, usually through an infected animal bite. Once the virus enters the body, it travels along the nerves and makes its way to the brain and spinal cord where it causes inflammation (encephalitis and myelitis).

In animals, the rabies virus first infects muscle and nerve cells at the site of the bite wound. It then travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and into the brain. From there, it spreads throughout the central nervous system, damaging neurons and leading to symptoms like abnormal behavior, aggression, excessive salivation, trouble swallowing, paralysis, and more. Eventually, rabies leads to death in animals once it reaches the brain (cite: https://www.cdc.gov/rabiesandkids/virus.html).

In humans, early symptoms of rabies include fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. As the virus spreads to the brain and causes inflammation, more serious symptoms emerge like anxiety, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, and insomnia. The disease eventually leads to paralysis, coma, and death in humans if left untreated (cite: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15791959/).


Rabies spreads through the saliva of infected animals. The main route of transmission is through bites, where the rabies virus in an infected animal’s saliva enters the wound caused by the bite. 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.”

Once the rabies virus enters the body through a bite wound or other break in the skin, it travels via the nerves to the spinal cord and brain. The rabies virus has an incubation period that can last for weeks to months before symptoms start to appear. During this time, the infected animal can transmit rabies to other animals or humans through additional bites. The CDC explains, “The virus will then travel to the central nervous system and cause disease.”




Risk Factors

Certain animals pose a higher risk for transmitting rabies if they bite or scratch you. Stray dogs and cats can potentially carry rabies, especially if they have not been vaccinated. Bats are also a major concern, as bats are the most common source of human rabies infections in the United States (https://www.dshs.texas.gov/sites/default/files/IDCU/disease/rabies/cases/Reports/Epi-Annual-rabies-2022-compiled-ZC-August-2023.pdf). Wild animals like raccoons, skunks, and foxes can also carry rabies and transmit it through bites. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of infected animals, so any situation where saliva can enter a wound, your eyes, nose or mouth poses a risk of transmission.

Overall, any wild mammal or stray animal has the potential to be infected with rabies. Bats and wild carnivores like raccoons, skunks and foxes are considered high risk. Loose dogs and cats that have not been vaccinated also pose a significant rabies danger. It’s important to avoid touching or getting bitten/scratched by any animal that could potentially have rabies.

Signs of Rabies in Cats

The first signs of rabies infection in cats are changes in behavior. Cats may act restless, defiant, and irritable. They may try to bite or scratch for no reason. Other odd behaviors like screaming, hissing, trembling, and hiding may also occur (petMD).

As the disease progresses, rabid cats often become aggressive and violent. They may attack their owners or other animals unprovoked. Excessive salivation, trouble swallowing, and choking can also be signs as the throat and jaw muscles become paralyzed (Hill’s Pet Nutrition).

Later stages of rabies lead to partial paralysis, seizures, coma, and ultimately death. From first infection, cats usually survive only 5-10 days once rabies symptoms appear (The Spruce Pets). Therefore it is critical to get treatment right away if rabies exposure is suspected.

Getting Treatment

If you are bitten by a cat that could potentially have rabies, it is crucial to get prompt medical treatment. The first step is to immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least 15 minutes. Be sure to clean the wound by scrubbing and irrigating deeply into the affected tissue. This helps reduce the amount of virus that may have entered the wound.

It is also essential to receive rabies vaccines and immunoglobulin injections as soon as possible after exposure. Rabies post-exposure prophylaxis consists of a dose of rabies immune globulin and rabies vaccine given on the day of the bite, followed by additional vaccine doses over 14 days (Yan et al., 2019). The faster rabies PEP is administered, the more effective it is. Therefore, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly after any animal bite that could cause rabies exposure.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting four doses of the rabies vaccine over a 14-day period along with the initial dose of rabies immune globulin. It is vital to follow through with all doses of the vaccine to ensure full protection. Delaying treatment or missing vaccine doses could put you at serious risk if rabies exposure did occur.

In summary, immediately and thoroughly washing the wound, receiving rabies PEP injections promptly, and completing the full vaccine series are critical actions if you are bitten by a potentially rabid cat. Quickly seek expert medical care and follow all rabies treatment recommendations for your safety.

Rabies Vaccines

Cats should receive their first rabies vaccination between 12-16 weeks of age according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines. After the initial vaccine, cats require a booster 1 year later and then additional boosters every 3 years thereafter. Some states allow the 3 year boosters to start earlier, after the initial 1 year booster. Check your local laws for rabies vaccine requirements in cats.

There are both 1 year and 3 year rabies vaccines available for cats. The 1 year vaccine contains more antigen than the 3 year vaccine, stimulating a faster immune response. However, the 3 year vaccine has been proven equally effective if boosters are given on schedule. Many vets recommend the 3 year rabies vaccine as it reduces stress to the cat from fewer vet visits for vaccines. Both vaccines are considered core for all cats by the AVMA due to the fatal nature of rabies infection.

Side effects from the rabies vaccine are very rare in cats, with fewer than 0.001% experiencing allergic reactions according to What You Need to Know About the Cat Rabies Vaccine. Mild side effects like lethargy or soreness at the injection site may occur. More severe reactions like facial swelling or vomiting are extremely uncommon but require prompt veterinary care if they develop.

If Rabies Goes Untreated

Rabies has an exceptionally high fatality rate if left untreated. According to the CDC, rabies has a mortality rate of nearly 100% once clinical symptoms appear. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html The untreated rabies mortality rate has been essentially 100% since record keeping began.

Once a person begins showing symptoms, rabies is almost always fatal. Initial symptoms are nonspecific and may include fever, headache, and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms appear including insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). After neurological symptoms begin, coma and death usually occur within a few days due to respiratory failure.

Rabies causes encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that leads to dysfunction of the nervous system. This inflammation is what produces the neurological symptoms and causes death once it has sufficiently advanced. Sadly, by the time symptoms appear, it is almost always too late for treatment to be effective.


The most effective way to prevent rabies in humans is through animal vaccination programs. According to the CDC, rabies vaccination of domestic dogs and cats, and oral rabies vaccination programs targeting wildlife, have nearly eliminated domestic dog rabies and significantly reduced rabies in wild animals in the United States. Widespread pet vaccination programs are critical to preventing human rabies exposures. All dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock should be vaccinated against rabies and kept up-to-date on their vaccines according to local regulations. Vaccinating pets protects people by creating a barrier between rabid wildlife and humans.

It’s also important to avoid contact with wild animals, especially bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, which are the most common carriers of rabies in the U.S. Do not feed, touch, or adopt wild animals, and contact animal control if you see animals acting strangely. Teach children not to approach unknown animals, especially wildlife. Limit food sources around the home that may be attracting wild animals.

While domestic animal vaccination provides a crucial barrier, avoiding contact with potentially rabid wildlife is also key to rabies prevention. Oral rabies vaccines distributed in bait to wildlife has been shown to control and even eliminate rabies in foxes, raccoons, and coyotes in certain areas of the U.S.


In summary, rabies is a dangerous viral disease that can be fatal if left untreated. If a cat with rabies bites you, it is crucial to immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. You should then visit a doctor right away to get the post-exposure rabies vaccine. This will prevent the rabies virus from multiplying and spreading through your nervous system.

The rabies vaccine is very effective if administered promptly after exposure. You will need to receive a series of shots over the span of 14 days along with a dose of rabies immune globulin. While the treatment may seem daunting, it is far better than the alternative of developing full-blown rabies infection.

To avoid potential rabies exposure, make sure your pets stay up to date on their rabies vaccines. You can also reduce your risk by avoiding contact with stray animals and wild mammals showing signs of unusual behavior. However, if you ever suspect rabies exposure, do not hesitate to seek medical care – the quicker you start post-exposure prophylaxis, the better your chances of preventing this deadly disease.

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