Rabies Shots Overdue? What To Do If Your Cat Is Past Due


Rabies is a deadly viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including cats, dogs, and humans. It is spread through the saliva of an infected animal, usually through bites. Rabies vaccinations are critical for protecting cats, as once a cat begins to show clinical signs of rabies, the disease is nearly always fatal. According to the CDC, domestic animals accounted for 7.6% of reported rabies cases in 2018, so while rare, the risk is still present without proper preventative care. If a rabid cat bites a human, the person could develop rabies as well, which is almost always fatal once symptoms set in. For these reasons, current rabies vaccination is extremely important for all cats.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms of rabies in cats include behavioral changes and neurological symptoms. Cats may become aggressive, attacking humans or other animals, or they may become more docile and affectionate (cite: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/rabies-in-cats). Other symptoms include excessive salivation, difficulty swallowing, paralysis, seizures, and coma (cite: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/rabies-in-cats).

Rabies progresses through three stages in cats: prodromal, furious, and paralytic. In the prodromal stage, the cat may seem anxious, irritable, and hide from people and other pets. In the furious stage, the cat becomes restless, vicious, and hypersensitive. The paralytic stage involves paralysis, seizures, and coma (cite: https://www.webmd.com/pets/cats/rabies-cats).

Rabies is almost always fatal in cats once clinical signs appear. However, with prompt postexposure treatment, cats have a good chance of surviving if treated before symptoms develop.


Rabies is spread through the bite or scratch of an infected animal. The rabies virus is transmitted via saliva when an infected animal bites another animal or person. According to the CDC, cats most often get rabies from infected wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes (CDC). The rabies virus infects the central nervous system and salivary glands of the infected animal.

Rabies does not spread through casual contact with cats like petting, handling, or kissing. The virus cannot be transmitted until symptoms appear. Once a cat begins showing signs of rabies, its saliva contains large amounts of virus that can be transmitted through bites. Cats with rabies tend to exhibit abnormal behavior like aggression and attacks.

If a rabid cat bites a human, the rabies virus in the saliva enters the wound and travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and brain. This is how rabies is transmitted from infected cats to humans. Prompt washing and medical care of the bite wound can help prevent the transmission of rabies after exposure.

Vaccine Schedule

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners vaccination guidelines[1], the recommended rabies vaccination schedule for cats is as follows:


  • Initial dose: 12-16 weeks of age
  • Booster: 1 year after initial dose

Adult Cats:

  • Booster: 1 year after previous dose

Some key points on the rabies vaccination schedule:

  • Kittens should receive their first rabies vaccine no earlier than 12 weeks of age.
  • All cats require an initial booster 1 year after their first dose.
  • Subsequent boosters are required annually in areas where rabies is endemic.
  • In some municipalities, a 3-year vaccination may be permitted after the initial 1-year booster.

It’s important to follow the recommended schedule to ensure your cat develops and maintains immunity against the rabies virus.

Risks of Overdue Vaccines

Getting rabies vaccines on time is extremely important for protecting your cat’s health. While some studies show antibodies may persist longer than the vaccine label states, delaying or skipping rabies boosters can still put your cat at risk.

Rabies is almost always fatal once clinical signs appear. Since the incubation period can be months to years, an exposed cat may seem perfectly healthy until it’s too late for treatment. Staying current on the rabies vaccine is the only reliable prevention method.

According to the CDC, more than 90% of rabies cases in domestic animals occur in unvaccinated pets. Even minor lapses in the vaccine schedule can leave cats susceptible. One study found 5% of overdue dogs and cats lacked adequate rabies antibody levels for protection.

Veterinarians strongly recommend sticking to the vaccine guidelines. While rabies vaccines are very safe, side effects like lethargy, fever, and irritation at the injection site are possible, especially with the first dose. Risks increase in older cats. Skipping boosters avoids these adverse reactions but leaves your cat defenseless against a fatal virus.

Rabies laws also typically require pets to be currently vaccinated. Failure to comply can lead to quarantines, impoundment or even euthanasia if your cat is considered a public health threat. Keeping vaccines up to date protects your cat’s health and avoids heartbreaking outcomes.

Check with your veterinarian about titer testing if you have concerns about vaccination frequency. But the dangers of delayed or skipped rabies vaccines far outweigh potential side effects. Sticking to vaccine schedules gives your cat the best chance at a long and healthy life.


If a cat is overdue on their rabies vaccine and gets potentially exposed to rabies, quarantine is recommended. The CDC advises that cats should be placed in strict quarantine for 4 months if the owner is unwilling to have the animal euthanized (CDC, 2022). This 4 month quarantine period is considered sufficient to observe the cat for signs of rabies. During quarantine, the cat must be kept in complete isolation, not able to have contact with other animals or people. Quarantine should take place at an animal control facility, veterinary medical facility, or in the home if certain criteria are met. No cases of rabies have ever been documented in a cat held in quarantine for 4 months. Quarantine can help prevent transmission of rabies if the cat was exposed but not showing symptoms yet.


If the rabies vaccine status of a cat that has bitten someone is unknown, the cat should be observed and/or tested for rabies to determine if there was potential rabies exposure. According to the CDC, any animal that has potentially exposed a person to rabies should be tested for the virus whenever possible (CDC – Exposure: Testing animals).

There are two main options for rabies testing in cats with unknown vaccine status:

  • Observe the cat for 10 days – If the cat remains alive and healthy during the 10 day observation period, it can be presumed not to have rabies at the time of the bite.
  • Euthanize and test – The cat may be humanely euthanized so that its brain tissue can be tested for the rabies virus (CDC – Veterinarians: Rabies Testing). This is the only validated postmortem test for rabies.

Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best approach based on the bite circumstances, risks to humans and animals, and observation feasibility. Rabies testing of cats with unknown vaccine status can provide critical information to guide medical treatment of bite victims.

Booster Shots for Overdue Rabies Vaccines

If your cat is overdue for their rabies vaccine booster shot, it’s important to get them vaccinated again as soon as possible. According to the CDC, dogs, cats, and ferrets that are overdue for a booster rabies vaccination should receive a booster dose as soon as feasible [1]. While rabies vaccines can last 1-3 years depending on the specific vaccine given, it’s crucial to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for timing of boosters.

Typically, the first rabies vaccination is given to kittens around 12-16 weeks of age. Then boosters are recommended every 1-3 years depending on your jurisdiction’s laws and the vaccine used. It’s essential to follow your vet’s advice on the timing of boosters as delaying boosters can put your cat at risk if they are exposed to rabies. According to Today’s Veterinary Practice, core vaccines including rabies should be boosted 1 year after the initial kitten series is completed [2].

If your cat is just a little past due, the booster can be administered right away to get them up to date. However, if they are significantly overdue, your vet may decide to restart the vaccine series depending on various factors. It’s important not to delay in getting overdue cats their rabies vaccine boosters, as rabies is almost always fatal once clinical signs appear.


The cost of rabies vaccines for cats typically ranges from $15-$45 per vaccine, with the average cost being around $25 (Source: https://www.latimes.com/compare-deals/insurance/guides/cat-vaccinations-cost). The initial rabies vaccine is given around 12-16 weeks old, with a booster 1 year later. After that, rabies boosters are required every 1-3 years depending on local laws.

If a rabies vaccine is overdue, there may be additional costs for quarantine and testing. Quarantine usually costs $15-$50 per day. Testing a cat’s rabies antibody levels costs $100-$300. Local animal control may also issue fines for overdue vaccines, which can range from $50-$500.

Some tips to reduce costs for overdue rabies vaccines:

  • Ask your vet about vaccine clinics or bundled packages to lower the per-vaccine price.
  • Inquire about any overdue vaccine discounts your vet may offer.
  • Research low-cost vaccination options from animal shelters or pet store clinics.
  • Purchase pet insurance with wellness coverage to be reimbursed for vaccine costs.

Keeping your cat’s rabies vaccines up-to-date as recommended can prevent much greater expenses from quarantine, fines, and medical care if exposed.


Maintaining your pet cat’s rabies vaccination on schedule is extremely important for public health and safety. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, so prevention is key. By keeping your cat up to date on its rabies shots as recommended by your veterinarian, you can protect your pet, your family, and your community. Never skip or delay a rabies booster shot for your cat. Rabies vaccines are safe, effective, and generally required by law. While a brief lapse in vaccination may not pose too much risk, it’s ideal to stay on schedule. Monitor your cat for any signs of rabies if you’re uncertain of its vaccine status, and consult your vet right away. With proper preventative care, we can control this dangerous zoonotic disease in domestic animals.

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