Do Indoor Cats Need Rabies Vaccinations?

On social media recently I followed a heated discussion as to whether indoor-only cats need to be vaccinated against rabies.

A surprising (to me) number of cat owners argued that since their cats lived inside and were never allowed outside, a rabies vaccination wasn’t needed. Far fewer cat owners said that the vaccination was still needed; that cats could still be exposed to rabies. The anti-vaccination folks then brought up the dangers of allergic reactions to the vaccinations. The argument went back and forth with considerable passion on both sides. So, removing most of the passion, let’s talk about this important issue and see what the experts have to say.

Rabies is Not a Rare Disease in Wildlife

In many parts of the United States, rabies is not, unfortunately, a rare disease in wildlife; in fact, it’s considered common among wild animals in the US. On the east coast, from Maine through Florida, the most common carrier of the disease is raccoons—and has been that way for several decades. In the upper and central states, skunks are found with the disease more than other animals. In Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, foxes are the most commonly found carrier. In California, skunks and bats can carry the disease. Other commonly found wildlife carriers include coyotes, wolves, bears, weasels, and groundhogs. Although these are the most common carriers, that doesn’t mean these are the only animals found with rabies, however; most mammals can contract the disease.

Some animals are generally not found to have rabies, including rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, and other small rodents. Although some believe these small animals might have some resistance to the disease, other experts feel that these small animals are more apt to be killed by rabid predators rather than just being bitten and then developing the disease.

Of animals reported and tested for rabies in the US in 2014, 1822 raccoons (30.2% of all tested) were positive for the disease; 1756 bats (29.1%); 1588 skunks (26.3%); and 311 foxes (5%).

©istockphoto/passion4nature

©istockphoto/passion4nature

Cats and Rabies

In 2014, 61% of rabid domestic animals tested were cats. Some of the wild animals the cats were exposed to were known and included bats, skunks, and raccoons. Unfortunately most of the sources of the disease were unknown. Records also don’t show whether the cats were indoor-only cats, outside cats, domesticated, or feral cats.

The vaccination status of these cats was also spotty. Thirty-two of the cats had no history of rabies vaccinations while one cat had an up to date rabies vaccination. The vaccination status of the other cats was unknown.

An animal who has rabies will have the virus in the nerves and saliva; therefore the most common method of transmission is usually through a bite. Since rabies also causes behavior changes (primarily aggression), this makes bites more likely to happen and for the bites to be more severe than they might otherwise be. Cats may then be bitten by their prey (perhaps a rapid bat is flopping on the ground and the cat pounces on it) or the cat may be bitten by an infected, aggressive animal that otherwise might not be a problem.

Incubation, from time of exposure to onset of symptoms, can range from a week up to a year, depending on the host animal. Besides aggression, symptoms of rabies includes uncoordinated movements, confusion, and a fear of water. Once the symptoms appear, rabies is almost 100% fatal.

Indoor Cats Can be Exposed

Unfortunately, indoor only cats are not completely protected from exposure to other rabid animals as indoor cats are almost never completely kept inside. It is not uncommon for an indoor cat to dash out an open door, to climb out a window, or even to fall through a screened window (on purpose or inadvertently). Many cats are taught to walk on a leash so they can go outside and even those cats who don’t walk on a leash may be carried outside in their owner’s arms. Once outside, a cat who wishes to escape will find some way to do so and any adventure outside carries with it the potential of exposure to something harmful (including a wild animal).

Then, too, rabid animals act irrationally and it’s not unusual for a wild animal who lives near people (in rural areas, suburbs, or even in the city) and who normally ignores or avoids people, to enter peoples’ home. Rabid bats especially, but even skunks and raccoons, have entered homes and when they do, people and pets can be exposed to the virus.

The recommendation from most public health authorities is to euthanize unvaccinated pets who have been exposed to rabies. While some regions may allow the pet to be quarantined that isolation may last six months or even longer, depending on the state of the disease in that locality. Not only is this not good for the pet’s mental and physical health, but it can also be extremely expensive.

©istockphoto/RoniMeshulamAbramovitz

©istockphoto/RoniMeshulamAbramovitz

Experts Push Vaccinations

Educational programs, especially those aimed at young school children, have helped keep people safe from rabies. Two main points of these programs include teaching children that wild animals should be left alone and never touched and any animal acting strangely should be pointed out to an adult who should contact an animal control officer. Several years ago, school children in San Diego saw a bat on the ground during daylight hours acting strangely, including not flying away, so while two of the kids kept any eye on the bat without touching it, another child ran for help. Further tests showed the bat was rabid. The kids said they learned what to do during a school lesson.

However, the most successful program to reduce the impact of the this killer virus is that of vaccinations. Increased vaccinations for domestic animals, including and most significantly for dogs and cats, has reduced rabies incidences in the US significantly. In many parts of the world, including parts of Asia and Africa, dogs are the most common source of rabies while in the US, because of legal requirements for vaccinations for dogs, the disease has been reduced significantly in dogs.

It’s The Law (In Some Places)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states, “All dogs, cats, and ferrets should be vaccinated and revaccinated for rabies according to product label directions.” Period. There are no exceptions made for animals who live inside. Plus, the CDC adds, “Titers (which measure antibodies in the blood) do not directly correlate with protection because other immunologic factors also play a role in preventing rabies.”

Lastly, vaccinating your cat, indoor or outside, may be required by law. Most states have laws regarding the vaccination of pet animals (dogs, cats, and ferrets) as well as other domestic animals. The details of the vaccinations varies from state to state and often refers to the label of the specific vaccine used. For information as to what the laws in your state require, do a search online, talk to your veterinarian or to your local animal control.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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