by Suzanne Morris, DVM
A little over a week has passed since authorities in Winter Park, FL, issued a rabies alert after a cat who attacked two humans tested positive for rabies. Other animals—including an otter and a kitten—have also recently tested positive for rabies in Florida, reminding us that rabies is far from being an eradicated disease (and may be alive and well in our backyards). Rabies is caused by a virus that can infect any warm-blooded animal and is transmitted in the saliva via bite (or other) wound. From there, the virus spreads through the peripheral nervous system towards the central nervous system (CNS)/brain, where it replicates and continues to spread throughout the nervous system. Its spread from the brain through the cranial nerves leads it to the salivary glands and is then shed in the saliva. In other words, by the time the virus is being shed in the saliva, the brain has already been affected. However, the virus is typically shed (in the saliva) for 1-5 days prior to the onset of apparent neurologic signs. There is a variable inoculation period between the time of the exposure to the virus and the time of first clinical signs of infection—in cats this period is roughly 4-6 weeks (in humans, inoculation periods of years have been reported). Once the clinical signs are evident, the outcome is nearly always fatal (usually within ten days of the onset of signs). The signs of rabies are varied—there is a furious and a paralytic form, with the furious form often preceding the paralytic form in cats (however, the furious form does not always manifest).
Unfortunately, the only diagnostic tests are postmortem (on brain tissue).
The best method for stopping the spread of the disease (and protecting your feline friends) is widespread vaccination against it. Cats are the most commonly exposed domestic animal, due to their often outdoor lifestyle and both greater likelihood of encountering infected wildlife and of not being current on rabies vaccination. For those who believe that their indoor kitty does not require vaccination, there is the possibility of indoor-exclusive cats encountering bats/other wildlife that (can and do) enter the home.
Please check with your veterinarian to make sure that your feline friends are current on their rabies vaccinations to help prevent the spread of this fatal disease. For additional information, visit the CDC’s website on rabies: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/
Rothrock K. Rabies (Zoonotic). Feline Associate VIN. https://www.vin.com/Members/Associate/Associate.plx?from=GetDzInfo&DiseaseId=774. (2018, Accessed 26 Mar 2019).