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 WildlifeIn 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%).
Cats and RabiesIn 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 ExposedUnfortunately, 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.