Ask the Edmonds Vet: Cats and rabies

Dr. David Gross
Dr. David Gross

My cat never goes out of doors, why does she need a rabies vaccination?

Historically dogs are most commonly associated with biting humans and transmitting rabies. It is now clear that in the U.S. cats are more often diagnosed with rabies than dogs. The number of verified cases of rabies in cats has increased and now there are three times as many cat cases reported compared to the diagnosis in dogs.

The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) says that approximately 34-37 percent of families or individuals with pet cats do not take those animals to a veterinarian. The likelihood of those animals being vaccinated to prevent rabies is low to nonexistent. At least a third of all cats not vaccinated? That is a troubling statistic made even more so by cat owners who do take their animals to a veterinarian but have failed to have them vaccinated against rabies.

This is not a rare disease. In 2010 fewer cases of rabies were reported compared to previous years in the U.S., but there were 6,153 cases in animals from 48 states and Puerto Rico verified. Raccoons were most commonly diagnosed (36.5 percent), skunks (23.5 percent), bats (25.2 percent), foxes (7.0 percent) and the rest in other species including some rodents. Domestic animals accounted for 8 percent of all verified cases and we still have two or three cases in humans every year. Last year a woman in Maryland died following a kidney transplant from a donor who was apparently incubating the disease. Other patients who received organs from that donor received preventive care and are, apparently, not affected. Rabid animals can and do come into contact with our pets, especially cats allowed outside. Imagine the response of your cat to a rabid bat, not able to fly, flopping around on your lawn.

The rabies virus is a member of the Lyssavirus genus of the Rhabdoviridae family and survives in both wild and domestic species, including farm animals. When I was in veterinary school we were often reminded that exposure for veterinarians was most commonly due to suspecting “choke,” an object lodged in the esophagus of a bovine that prevents the animal from swallowing, when the animal actually has rabies. When I worked for the U.N. in Mexico for a year in the veterinary school, at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, I almost fell victim to this. Students were handling a cow that was profusely salivating, even putting their hands in its mouth. I almost did the same before remembering what had been drummed into us. We isolated the cow that developed other signs of rabies within hours and then died, and rabies was confirmed on necropsy. Most veterinarians today have received preventive vaccination for rabies; at least I hope they have.

New oral vaccines for rabies have recently been developed and distributed in bait. This program has successfully reduced the incidence of rabies in rural areas of the U.S., Canada, France and other environments. A serious outbreak of rabies in raccoons in the Mount Royal park area of Montreal, Canada was brought under control using this resource.

So, … get your cat vaccinated. With Halloween soon upon us a bat could fly into your house, your cat pounces on it, gets bit and then you get exposed when your cat bites you. Emily Hill, (our My Edmonds News arts correspondent and writer of horror stories) take note, here is a short story plot for you.

Dr. David Gross of Edmonds graduated from Colorado State University’s veterinary school in 1960 and was in private practice for 10 years. He retired in 2006 as Professor and Head of Veterinary Biosciences, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Gross is the author of “Animals Don’t Blush,” which describes the unique patients and even more unique clients of a veterinary practice in Sidney, Montana in the early 1960s.

  1. Fascinating info. I have a family of large raccoons who frequent my yard; my own (indoor only) cat is vaccinated against rabies but I’ve always wondered what sort of havoc they could cause if they were infected. Is the bait you mention used in residential areas as well? Or is it less common in areas like Edmonds?

  2. I agree that people should be more assertive in ensuring that their cats are vaccinated against Rabies, but I also believe that the use of ‘scare statistics’ is not the best way to go about achieving that goal. For instance, the TOTAL number of dogs and cats diagnosed with Rabies in 2012 in all western states combined (AZ,CA,CO,ID,MT,NM,OR,UT,WA,WY) is 3 cats and 4 dogs. The top 5 states for rabid cats during that year were (in order) PA, VA, NC, GA, and NY, reporting a combined 140 cats and only 19 dogs.

    This indicates that there is a much greater regional distribution of the virus than the article describes. We that live on the western coast of North America simply live a much less risky region for Rabies, and even though we must be diligent, there is no need for alarmist behavior.

    I am a veterinarian in Tacoma.

  3. I absolutely agree with Dr Gross and I would not consider anything in this article to be “alarmist behavior.” I don’t know about Tacoma, but here in Florida, rabies is everywhere. I have seen two cats with it and pray I never see it again, and this doesn’t count the roughly 20% infection or carrier state of raccoons living near the Intracoastal Waterway. This is a public health zoonotic disease (reportable by law) and ANY education and warning about it is still never enough. My own cousin had no idea rabies was a fatal disease and apparently a great many clients don’t know this, either, based on the fact so many I see want to “skip” the vaccine because they think it will save money, or that it is no real issue. This isn’t helped when I see newspeople on the television actually report that dogs or cats were “tested for rabies and returned to the owner.” Well, maybe if the test was negative, but the head and body were not still together at that time. And I am a veterinarian, as well. I applaud anything CLOSE to “alarmist behavior” where rabies is concerned. THANK YOU, DR GROSS!!!

  4. I’d be interested in hearing from some of the Vets who wrote/responded to this article about rabies in felines. Just how long do you think the 1 year Merial modified live rabies vaccine is good for (length of protection)? I suspect it is MUCH longer than 1 year.

    1. Here’s the problem: in ANY vaccine (polio, flu, rabies, whatever,) the immunity varies between individuals. Also, in a population of vaccinated patients, as many as TEN PERCENT are NEVER protected at all. You don’t know which ten percent without “challenging” (exposing directly to the diseases,) either,which is not a good idea. In addition, all the hype about doing “titres” is also nebulous but mostly a legal issue. An animal or person who has a titre done and shows antibodies are still there (protected,) could still be oddly susceptible to the disease. It is good enough for the law, but that is about law, not about the individual patient. A high titre is great news, and the only evidence we can have that an individual is presumed protected, but it is still not a 100% guarantee. MOST of the basic vaccines we give pets do last a great deal longer than the manufacturer “guarantees,” but any of us would be foolish to say we could be 100% certain of coverage in every circumstance. In MOST of the rabies vaccines we use (and they are excellent as far as protection,) the only difference in the length of “guaranteed” coverage is the label. Some communities and some veterinarians require yearly rabies vaccination, so the one year label helps to define that, but the actual vaccine is the same as the three year label. The company will only stand by the coverage for that time, and the vaccine must be proven to have been given by a currently licensed veterinarian (not the breeder, feed store guy, or grandfather who always had dogs, or the owner.) As far as Merial’s newer vaccine, I would not hazard any guesses and would leave that up to a veterinary immunologist—maybe one will weigh in!

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