Rabies has been a part of the experience of humans and their pets since before the development of written language. The first recorded mention of rabies was in the Laws of Eshnunna (circa 1930 BC), stamped in cuneiform upon clay, which detailed punishments for people who allowed rabid pets to harm others. World Rabies Day has been observed each year since 2007. The Centers for Disease Control and the Alliance for Rabies Control began a concerted campaign on Sept. 28 of that year, designed to halt the spread of this deadly viral infection.
The particular date was chosen to commemorate the death of Louis Pasteur, a foundational figure in the history and practice of immunology. In 1885, following very few clinical trials on dogs, Pasteur administered the first successful rabies vaccine to a young child. In the 130 years since, Pasteur’s maverick treatment has been responsible for saving countless lives, both human and cat. World Rabies Day reminds us that preventative vaccinations continue to be critically important around the globe.
Among all of the viral infections that can afflict our cats, rabies is indisputably the one we’ve known about and struggled against the longest. As a living virus, rabies has one set of goals — to infect, replicate, and survive. How is rabies transmitted? Rabies typically enters a cat’s system by means of a bite from any infected animal. The virus is transmitted through contact with saliva, however, so a cat can catch rabies through any open wound, bite or otherwise.
Once it is in a cat, rabies does its work incredibly fast. It gathers strength and replicates in muscle tissue before traveling the nervous system to the brain. Rabies causes a cat’s brain to swell beyond the skull’s capacity to contain. That inflammation and pressure brings about physical and behavioral changes in cats.
Rabies in cats has two major forms, furious and paralytic. Furious rabies yields that image we most commonly associate with the viral infection, namely snarling, instinctive aggression. Paralytic rabies, on the other hand, yields disorientation, confusion, and immobility. The two manifestations of rabies are not mutually exclusive, however; furious rabies frequently gives way to paralytic rabies in an infected cat.
The rabies incubation period is quick: Symptoms of rabies in cats can begin to manifest within a week to 10 days of infection. What symptoms and how they manifest vary on an individual basis; the size of the cat determines the progress of the rabies virus’ journey from the site of infection to the brain. They symptoms that appear have both physical and behavioral components.
Behavioral signs of rabies in cats tend to be more recognizable in cases of furious rabies. A calm, mild-mannered, or friendly cat may suddenly become irritable and antagonistic. Signs of paralytic rabies in cats tend to be easier to spot from a physical vantage point when a normally active and playful cat starts moving slowly or erratically, his lower jaw inclined to hang open.
If your cat spends any amount of time outdoors, train yourself to give her a quick examination for any signs of physical struggle, including bites or scratches. In North America, rabies is an atypical disease for any but stray cats to carry. It’s much more readily found in small wild-animal populations, especially among bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. It’s amusing in old cartoons to see the skunk Pep├® Le Pew courting the cat Penelope. In nature, it’s a recipe for rabies infection.
Vaccinations against rabies are relatively inexpensive and readily available, proven to be safe, effective, and relatively inexpensive. It is critically important, when adopting a cat, either as a kitten or as a rescue, to ensure long-term protection against rabies by having a veterinarian administer a rabies vaccination at the earliest opportunity. Your vet can help you determine a schedule for periodic booster shots.
Even a cat with a rabies vaccination in her past may be vulnerable to certain strains of the viral infection. Should an incident with wildlife come to pass, though, your cat’s vet will be able to tell within 10 days whether the cat is at risk. Of course, side effects are possible with any kind of medical treatment. For the overwhelming majority of cats, the only consequences of a rabies shot are a few days of lingering soreness or itching at the site of the injection.
Cats who contract rabies, furious or paralytic, frequently face an untimely death. Rabies has been a deadly danger to cats and their owners for thousands of years, and that only covers recorded history. While there are parts of the world that have been declared rabies free, entire populations remain at risk. Why permit your cat even a remote possibility of infection? Join the World Rabies Day crusade and get your cats vaccinated!
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