Rabies is a fatal infection of the central nervous system caused by the virus belonging to the Rhabdoviridae family. It is found in nearly all warm-blooded mammals and is of great concern due to it being zoonotic (transmissible from animals to humans).
The disease is found in all continents of the world except Australia and Antarctica. Although Australia doesn't have rabies, bats in Australia are known to carry a virus known as Australian bat lyssavirus (ABL), which is closely related to the rabies virus. As far as I am aware, there have been no reported cases of cats in Australia contracting ABL, although humans have caught the disease. This article refers to rabies only, not ABL.
Skunks and raccoons are the major source of infection in the US although most cases of human infection occur as a result of dog bites. Cats are more commonly infected than dogs (4 to 1), no doubt due to them roaming and coming into contact with infected wildlife. Cats are less likely to be vaccinated than dogs.
The virus doesn't live long outside the body and is susceptible to most common disinfectants.
Symptoms of rabies in cats:
The incubation period of rabies is from 30-90 days but may take as long as a year. As a general rule, the further from the brain the bite occurs, the longer the incubation period. The animal is not contagious during the incubation period.
The virus is shed in the saliva and primarily transmitted via bite wounds. The virus initially replicates in the muscle cells until it has reached a high enough concentration to reach nearby sensory and motor nerve endings . From there it makes its way to the spinal cord and eventually the brain. Once in the brain, it travels back along the nerves to the mouth, where it enters the saliva.
Death typically occurs within 10 days of the onset of clinical signs.
Rabies has three phases, prodromal, furious and dumb/paralytic. Cats may experience all three phases, or just one or two.
During the prodromal (meaning early symptoms) phase, which lasts 1-3 days, the cat may display the following symptoms:
From the prodromal phase, cats may enter the furious phase, which lasts from two to four days. Symptoms include:
- Muscle tremors
Finally the dumb/paralytic phase. Symptoms include:
- Paralysis of the throat
- Hypersalivation (drooling)
- Paralysis of the rear legs
- Respiratory failure
Diagnosis of rabies in cats:
The only accurate diagnosis of rabies is via examination of the brain material, after death.
Treatment of rabies in cats:
There is no effective treatment for rabies in cats and euthanasia is necessary. Due to the serious nature of the disease and the risks of transmission to humans, if rabies is suspected submission of the head to the proper authorities is required for rabies testing.
If you believe that you have been bitten by an animal infected with rabies, immediate medical attention is vital.
Prevention of rabies in cats:
All cats in affected areas should be vaccinated with a killed vaccine at 3-4 months of age, or as recommended by your veterinarian/local authorities.
Avoid letting your cats free-roam.
 Veterinary Virology - Frederick A. Murphy, E. Paul J. Gibbs, Marian C. Horzinek, Michael J. Studdert