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Rabies Vaccines for Cats: A Complete Guide (Vet Answer)

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	Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM) Photo

Written by

Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM)

Veterinarian

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Vaccines are an important way of contributing to your cat’s medical care—ensuring they stay healthy for many years to come. In addition to a yearly or twice-yearly physical exam with their vet, they also need to have their vaccine needs assessed on an annual basis.

Vaccines consist of core and non-core vaccines, depending on a cat’s lifestyle—such as if a cat is an indoor vs outdoor cat, how often they might board in a cattery—as well as their age, and other risk factors.

Rabies vaccines fit into both categories, depending on where you and your cat live. In some geographic locations, they are considered a core vaccine—as in, they are required by local or state laws. In other countries, that don’t have rabies virus, these vaccines may not be used in pets at all, and are, therefore, not considered a core vaccine. However, if these cats travel overseas to countries with rabies, they may then need to receive their rabies vaccine, often with a very specific timeline in regards to when they are traveling.

Rabies virus is a seldomly encountered disease but is well-known as very serious and uniformly fatal. Rabies is contracted through a bite wound from an infected animal. It is only a short span of time of having the virus before an animal succumbs to the disease. Because rabies virus can be transmitted from animals to people, it is considered a “zoonoses”. Rabies occurs rarely but is fatal in humans and animals alike. Therefore, vaccinating your pet for rabies is highly preferable to the alternative.

Read on to learn more about the rabies virus, the disease, the vaccine, and what your cat needs to prevent this fatal disease.

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What is Rabies Virus?

Rabies virus traditionally lives in sylvan or woodland animals. It is only found in certain countries; and some island countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are considered to be rabies-free. This makes importing animals into these countries from countries where rabies is present a bit challenging for pet owners.

The virus travels through the nerves of infected animals, creating the typical nervous system signs that are seen in the infection.

How Do Rabies Vaccines Work?

Veterinarian at vet clinic giving injection to cat
Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock

There are two main forms of rabies vaccines for cats: killed vaccines and vector vaccines. Killed vaccines contain inactive genetic material that can’t reproduce the original virus, but still allow the immune system to recognize the pathogen. Vectored or recombinant vaccines are a newer form of rabies vaccines that don’t involve adjuvants to trigger the immune system. The premise is that, without adjuvants, these vaccines are less likely to cause some of the serious (but rare) side effects seen in traditional vaccines.

After receiving a vaccine, the body recognizes the foreign material contained in the vaccine and produces an immune response. This response takes about 7–14 days to reach a peak response. For infectious diseases that cats should not routinely encounter, such as rabies, vaccines are considered effective after a single dose. The body produces antibodies that are available to recognize the virus in the future, and memory cells that learn the virus and are triggered to produce future antibodies against it on short notice.

What Causes Rabies in Cats?

Rabies in cats is caused when a cat is bitten by an infected animal, such as a raccoon, skunk, or bat. Certain carriers of rabies are more common in certain areas of the world. After the bite, the virus travels slowly via the nerves, until it infects the nervous system and ultimately causes death. Unfortunately, once infected with rabies, there is no treatment for cats.

Where Are the Symptoms of Rabies in Cats?

cat drooling
Image Credit: Ling_Chen, Shutterstock
Symptoms of rabies virus are highly varied and can include:
  • Drooling
  • Biting
  • Water phobia
  • Seizures
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Hiding or other behavioral changes
  • Weight loss

Because the rabies virus is deadly and transmissible to humans, it is imperative that you contact your vet immediately if you have any concerns about your cat being exposed to or showing signs of rabies.

Traveling with a Cat: How Does the Rabies Vaccine Fit in?

Rabies vaccines are required for many different travel areas, and sometimes, within a certain time period prior to travel, or prior to issuing a health certificate for travel. Ensure that you know the requirements that are specific to your travel destination.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is a Typical Rabies Virus Vaccine Schedule?

Rabies vaccines are typically given every 1–3 years, depending on the vaccine. Most are licensed for use for cats 12 weeks of age and onwards.

Veterinarian giving injection to cat
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Does My Indoor Cat Need a Rabies Vaccine?

Indoor cats are not exempt from contracting rabies, and many areas require that cats be vaccinated regardless of their indoor or outdoor lifestyles. Regardless, it is a good idea that your cat has at least been vaccinated against rabies at some point in their life.

What Are Possible Rabies Vaccine Side Effects?

Common side effects of vaccines in cats include lethargy, followed by vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Cats rarely develop anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reactions to vaccines), facial swelling, or hives—as many other species are prone to developing. Let your vet know if your cat does experience any reactions to a vaccine, as this may change how they should be vaccinated moving forward.

However, vaccines can also have rare but serious side effects. One of the more serious side effects, particularly in cats, is called vaccine-associated fibrosarcoma—a type of cancer that forms from the cells forming the connective tissue layer under the skin. There is strong evidence to suggest that a combination of genetics, along with certain vaccines, has led to the formation of these cancers in cats. Many of these vaccines are now made differently, so as not to contain adjuvants. Additionally, most vaccines in cats are now given in specific locations of the body. That way, if one of these cancers occurs, the vaccine that may have played a role can be identified.

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Conclusion

Rabies is a serious, fatal disease in cats and humans alike. Therefore, vaccines are not to be taken lightly. Any healthy cat at risk of being exposed to the disease should receive appropriate rabies vaccines, as determined by their veterinarian.

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Featured Image Credit: Kachalkina Veronika, Shutterstock

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