Rabies in Cats

Rabies is a type of viral encephalomyelitis; in other words, a virus infection of the tissues of the brain. All warm-blooded animals are susceptible - including humans. It's considered fatal, but some victims have recovered, including a number of people.

The virus is transmitted primarily through biting, which "injects" infected saliva into the victim, but some rare instances have been through inhalation of air-borne virus, and in some cases, it has never been determined how the exposure occurred.

It occurs most commonly in dogs, raccoons, bats, cats, wild carnivores, and has even shown up in cattle and horses. It exists worldwide, except in some locations that have either eradicated it (Britain), or are protected by their location, such as certain island nations, like Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly, with today's technology, a sample can be studied to determine which kind of animal it came from. Rabies virus in a dog is different from the virus found in bats, for example. If the virus shows up in the animal's saliva, it is most certainly present in the brain as well. But the only definitive test is the one where they have to sacrifice the animal, if it's not already dead, to get a biopsy from the brain, where scientists look for "Negri bodies," or black spots within the brain tissue (in the hippocampus).

The incubation period, the interval between the bite and manifesting the disease, varies quite a bit, but generally it occurs between 2 weeks and 50 days. Thus, it is critical to examine the animal in time to prevent a bite victim from having to endure the painful course of treatment if rabies is not present.

A rabid animal displays certain changes in behavior, though nothing is chiseled in stone and a pet's symptoms may not indicate rabies at all. In cats, they may first show signs of a digestive disorder (cats are always having a digestive problem, it seems), an infectious disease, poisoning, or acting like there is some foreign object in their mouth. They also may become lethargic and refuse to eat or drink, and may prefer to be alone. If the urogenital tract is affected, they will urinate a lot, and often, and may attempt to mate frequently. After a few days, they either become paralyzed, or vicious. Once this stage is reached, the disease progresses rapidly and death ensues. This is perhaps the most dangerous stage, as they are apt to bite without provocation, although every stage is potentially dangerous if you contact their infected saliva.

While vaccinating has certainly reduced the risk significantly, it can also produce a rabies response, in which the animal exhibits the disease. If it happens, recovery may occur in 1 - 2 months, but not always. (Information taken from The Merck Veterinary Manual.)

A common objection to the Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs some communities are doing or are proposing, is that it is impossible to recapture all the cats to do the rabies booster shots.

There is an instinctive fear of rabies in all parts of the world, however, the facts must speak for themselves. If anyone cares to research the studies and the statistics, it will be found, for instance, that there were only 3 cases of rabies in the Southeastern United States (a very common area for it) in the decade before 2000, and all of those were domestic cats - not wild, or feral, ones. The facts show that rabies is not the public health crisis that many believe it to be, and that the fear of rabies far outweighs the actual threat.

Information from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in Atlanta, Georgia, reveals there were only 36 cases of human rabies between 1990 and 2002. Seven of those originated outside the U.S. and not one of those 36 cases was from a cat.

Now look at West Nile Virus. In 2002, there were 4,171 human cases with 277 deaths. Which is the bigger threat? Rabies or WNV?

Also, please note that not one TNR feral cat program in the U.S. required a second rabies vaccination to prevent the disease. This is because the immunity far outlasts the so-called "shelf-life" of the vaccines. According to a study done in 1981 in the U.S., "Complete protection was observed after more than 3 years following a single vaccination." (Experimental Rabies in Cats: Immune Response and Persistence of Immunity.)

In other words, a one-year shot conferred immunity for at least 3 years, and probably longer, but we'll never know because they stopped the study after 3 years.

If a community is truly concerned about rabies, they need to consider vaccinating the local wildlife. There are oral vaccines available to treat wild animal populations easily. (Can you see trying to catch coyotes and foxes to give them a shot?)

As a responsible pet owner, your best course of action is to keep good records for all the cats you care for. And just remember: A TNR program, with vaccinations and spay/neuter, is ALWAYS better than doing nothing.

Copyright 2006 - 2007 - RJ Peters 
Dr. R.J. Peters, a retired physician, established an animal rescue shelter in 2002. She has worked with hundreds of dogs and cats and shares much of what she's learned, at The Problem Cat.