Why does my cat need a rabies vaccination? She never goes outside!

An incorrect comment that I hear frequently, is “my cat only stays inside, she doesn’t need shots.”  Today I would like to focus on one of those “shots”, the rabies vaccination.  Rabies is a virus found worldwide with an estimated 59,000 human lives lost each year.  This virus causes acute inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and is deathly, in all species including humans, once symptoms appear.

Spread of rabies is most often through saliva deposited in a bite.  Once bitten, the virus can stay in the victim’s body from 3 weeks to 6 months before developing into full-blown disease.  Bite wounds on cats are often too small to be seen and can heal quickly. In fact, bat bites often aren’t even felt by humans.  Without knowing about the bite, there is no way to start post-exposure vaccines before symptoms appear and once symptoms appear it is too late to prevent death.  Therefore, your cat needs to be vaccinated before they might receive that bite from another cat in the yard or bat in the attic.  Rabies can be prevented by vaccination!

When animals are first bitten by a rabid animal, the virus follows along the nerves from the bite location to the spinal cord and brain.  Once in the central nervous system, it replicates and travels along the nerves to the salivary glands.  Only when the virus has left the brain and entered the salivary glands will this animal be able to infect others.  It is possible for both dogs and cats to shed rabies virus in their saliva for several days before they start to show signs- so often humans are exposed before they know their new stray kitten or cat that got out a few months ago is sick.

Signs of rabies vary widely with the most common being behavioral changes (can be more friendly or more aggressive) and unexplained paralysis.  It is impossible to avoid all rabid animals as they do not all appear like the classic “Old Yeller”.  The best way to avoid coming into contact with a rabid animal is to vaccinate your pets.  Yes, even your indoor cat is more likely to come in contact with a bat in the attic, or a stray cat or skunk in your yard then you are.  If your kitty is vaccinated, she will be protected from rabies and because of that you will also be less likely to contract the disease.

Pennsylvania law is that all owned dogs and cats be vaccinated at 3 months of age.  Many of us have indoor cats who like to sneak out occasionally, and as described before, a bite wound can easily go unnoticed while the virus starts traveling in your cat’s body.  Also, there are documented cases of bats coming into homes and transmitting rabies to humans or pets. (Just this fall a Wyoming woman died from rabies and more than 2 dozen of her friends and family had post-exposure treatment from a bat in her bedroom.)   Your cat may never leave the house and still be exposed – all it takes is one bat coming into your home. You may never even know that it bit your cat, but whose cat wouldn’t play with a bat they found flitting around the house?  As veterinarians, one of our important roles is that of public health protector.  The PA Rabies Law does just that – protects the public health.  Vaccinating your indoor cat will create a wall of protection for you, kitty, and all those who visit your home.  Worldwide, tens of thousands of lives are lost to rabies each year in countries where vaccination is not readily available and up to 60% of those deaths are in children under the age of 15. However, in the United States this century, the number of human rabies deaths declined from 100 or more each year to an average of 2 or 3 each year.  This is because of laws requiring our pets be vaccinated.  We want to keep this number low and make it disappear completely – please vaccinate your kitty for rabies.  No one should die from a preventable disease!

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