Rabies Virus: Understanding Zoonotic Diseases & Feline Vaccinations

Zoonosis is any infectious disease, such as the rabies virus, that can be transmitted from non-human animals to humans and vice versa, the latter of which is referred to as reverse zoonosis. Understanding zoonotic diseases, your risks, and prevention measures is an essential part of being a good cat owner.

It should be noted that most cat diseases affect only cats, and most human diseases affect only humans. Generally speaking, you are much more likely to contract a disease from another person than you are your own cat. With that said, however, there are some diseases, such as rabies, that can be quite serious for both people and cats.

Understanding Zoonotic Diseases

Your risk of exposure to a potential zoonotic disease in cats is usually due to contact with bodily fluids from a cat, including urine, feces, and saliva. On occasion, for some cat zoonotic diseases, contact with food or water dishes from an infected cat or fleas or ticks that bite an infected cat and then bite a human can transmit a zoonotic disease.

Most cat zoonotic diseases are easily treated and most people are at minimal risk for contracting a disease, but infants, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems should be most careful.

Bacterial infections, such as cat-scratch disease, parasitic infections, such as roundworm and tapeworm, and fungal infections, such as ringworm, are all usually readily treated should you contract one of these zoonotic diseases from a cat.

Viral infections, however, which are not typically transmitted beyond the host species, can have much more serious and potentially fatal consequences. The biggest risk for zoonotic viral diseases, by far, is the rabies virus.

Rabies Virus Exposure

The August 2011 “outbreak” of potential rabies exposure cases in Maryland has caused many individuals to be concerned about possible rabies exposure. The incidents range from bites from bats to bites from raccoons and even cats, and have resulted in ten individuals being treated with rabies shots. While several bats throughout the area were tested for the rabies virus with no evidence of infection, a bite from any wild animal or outdoor animal poses a risk for possible rabies exposure.

Rabies virus is a case of zoonosis that is usually fatal once symptoms of the disease have presented, attacking the central nervous system and destroying the infected individual’s brain and spinal cord. Raccoons, foxes, skunks, and bats are the most common carriers of the rabies virus, but domestic animals can be rabid as well, and the most common domestic rabies carrier is the cat.

Fortunately, however, rabies transmission is preventable, and begins largely with responsible cat and pet ownership and practicing wise safety measures in and around your home.

Preventing Rabies Virus: Cat Rabies Vaccine

In most states, rabies vaccinations are required by law. Generally speaking, a cat rabies vaccine is given every one to three years, depending on the cat’s age, overall health, and the level of immunity the treating veterinarian believes the cat has acquired over its lifetime of vaccination for rabies.

So, why are vaccinations for rabies so important? For many reasons. First, the cat rabies vaccine ensures that your cat is protected from rabies should he or she ever come into contact with a rabid animal. This is critical, because should your cat be out-of-date on his or her cat rabies vaccine and get bitten by another animal outdoors, your cat will likely be required to be quarantined for a period of several months, possibly even at a veterinarian’s office. A cat that is up-to-date on feline vaccines, however, will need a booster rabies shot at the time of the rabies exposure and to be simply monitored for signs and symptoms of the rabies virus.

It is important to never let your feline vaccines for rabies expire, and is often recommended that the vaccination for rabies be given at least a few weeks before your cat is due for the vaccine according to your feline vaccination schedule. The overlap ensures that your cat, your other pets, and your family are protected should a rabies exposure occur.

There are additional steps to be taken to prevent rabies exposure, including not allowing your cat to roam free outdoors. If your cat does go outside, it is recommended that he or she is allowed to do so only under your supervision, or within the confines of an outdoor cat enclosure. And, even if supervision is not a possibility, keeping your indoor/outdoor cats inside at night can drastically reduce your cat’s rabies exposure risk, as many of the rabies vector species, such as bats, raccoons, and foxes, roam at night.

Of all cat zoonotic diseases, rabies virus is by far the deadliest, and keeping your cats current on all feline vaccines will be critical for your and your cat’s protection.

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