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Can You Get Rabies From a Cat Scratch?

Kathryn Copeland

By Kathryn Copeland

scratch on a man's hand made by a cat

Everyone has likely heard of rabies, particularly if you’re familiar with the films, “Old Yeller” and “Cujo.” It’s a highly transmissible yet preventable disease that’s often associated with dogs. However, it is just as likely to infect cats. The most typical way to become infected with rabies is by being bitten by an infected animal. But can you get rabies from a cat scratch?

It is technically possible though this is a rare occurrence. Rabies is transmitted from an infected animal’s saliva, so the most common method of transmission is through a bite.

Here, we get into the symptoms that you should watch for and if there is any treatment for rabies.

About Rabies

Rabies is a highly infectious yet preventable viral disease that can infect mammals, which includes pets. The virus is also zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted to humans. Unfortunately, once the symptoms start to show, it is 100% fatal¹.

It is found around the world, but it isn’t present in a few continents and countries, including the United Kingdom, the Pacific Islands, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Antarctica, Ireland, Iceland, and a few parts of Scandinavia.

angry domestic cat growling
Image Credit: pixbull, Shutterstock

Cause of Rabies

The most common method of passing the rabies virus is through a bite. Saliva that carries the virus is injected into the animal (or person) through the bite. Since saliva is the carrier of the disease, it helps explain why it’s rare for rabies to be passed on any other way.

But it is possible to become infected if the saliva comes into contact with a scratch, open wound, or mucous membranes, such as the mouth, nose, or eyes.

While it’s quite rare to become infected by a cat scratch, it’s a possibility. Since cats lick their paws, their saliva can be transferred in the scratch, which might lead to infection.

What Animals Tend to Transmit Rabies?

This depends on the location: in Europe, it is usually foxes. In North America, it’s raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes (usually in that order).

In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, stray dogs are the most common carriers of rabies. Human fatalities from this disease are also highest in these areas.

But in the U.S., the bat is the primary cause¹ of human fatalities. The bite can be as small as a hypodermic needle, so in many cases, people don’t realize that they’ve been bitten. Worldwide, dogs¹ are the main source of human fatalities from rabies.

After the person or animal is bitten, the saliva travels from the point of entry and moves along the nerves until it reaches the brain. From the brain, it enters the salivary glands, which is why saliva is the cause of infection. But before the rabies actually reaches the brain, there is an incubation period.

red domestic cat bites owners hand
Image Credit: Irzhanova Asel, Shutterstock

The Incubation Period

There is an incubation period from the time of the bite and before the symptoms appear. For humans, it starts about day five after the injury and can last for more than a year, sometimes as long as 2 years. But the average incubation period for humans is around 2 months.

How long incubation takes depends on a few factors:

  • How severe the bite or scratch is
  • Where the wound is on the body — the higher up the wound, the closer it is to the spinal cord and brain, and consequently, the faster the virus reaches the brain
  • How much of the virus was injected into the wound — there are times that the rabies virus isn’t always present in the saliva, or only a small amount of the virus enters the body

During the incubation period, there aren’t any symptoms, which also means the animal isn’t contagious. Once rabies reaches the brain and salivary glands, this is when the symptoms will begin, and the animal is contagious at that time.

What Are the Symptoms of Rabies in Humans?

Rabies has two stages for humans once the incubation period has ended and the infection has reached the brain.

Stage 1

This stage can last about 2 to 10 days.

The symptoms are similar to those of the seasonal flu:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Generally feeling unwell (malaise)

These symptoms are at the site of the wound:

  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
a woman with headache
Image Credit: Keira Burton, Pexels

Stage 2

Stage 2 is the final stage and lasts for about 2 to 10 days.

The symptoms are quite severe at this point:

  • Difficulty swallowing (this can lead to foaming at the mouth)
  • Hydrophobia (fear of water, which ties into the troubles with swallowing)
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Delirium and hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Possibly becoming paralyzed
  • Coma
  • Death

Once the symptoms begin, the disease is almost always fatal, and there is no treatment. There has been the occasional survivor, but this is quite rare.

What Are Common Rabies Symptoms in Animals?

Animals have similar symptoms to humans. The first stage is also called the prodromal phase, and the first noticeable symptom is a change in temperament. If your cat is shy, they become agitated and hyper, and if they are outgoing, they become reclusive and nervous.

The other symptoms listed in Stage 1 for people are similar to what you’ll see in an animal. The prodromal phase usually lasts about 2 to 3 days.

There are two final stages once the prodromal phase is over, and cats will either show one of these or a combination of both.

Dumb or Paralytic Rabies

This phase is one of the more common stages:

  • Gradual paralysis
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Excessive salivation
  • Incoordination
  • Distortion of the face
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
cat vomiting white froth
Image Credit: Sarah2, Shutterstock

Furious Rabies

This is the phase that we strongly associate with rabies, in which the cat becomes dangerous:

  • Nervous
  • Irritable
  • Aggressive
  • Excitable
  • Inability to drink or eat
  • Gradual paralysis
  • Hypersensitive to light and sound
  • Seizures

Note that the hydrophobia symptom only affects humans.

The first phase only starts when the virus has reached the brain. From this point, the animal typically dies within 7 days.

Is There Treatment?

There is no treatment for either humans or animals once the symptoms are apparent. But medical attention once the bite or scratch has occurred can provide immunity.

Dogs and cats should receive an annual rabies booster, which provides a certain amount of immunity. They will receive another shot after exposure.

The original rabies shots that humans had to get after rabies exposure was a number of needles in the stomach. Today, however, rabies shots go into the upper arm, making for much less painful treatment.

person getting rabies shot
Image Credit: DonyaHHI, Shutterstock

Can Rabies Be Diagnosed?

Unfortunately for animals, there is no diagnosis except for the symptoms toward the end. If a wild animal or any animal acting erratically bites your pet, take them to the vet straightaway for the shot. The only way to get an official diagnosis is to examine the brain after the animal has died.

In humans, tests might be done on samples of saliva, serum, and spinal fluid, as well as a skin biopsy from the nape of the neck. However, none of these tests can absolutely determine a rabies diagnosis.

Report to the Authorities

Whether you or your pet were bitten or not, if you suspect that an animal has rabies, you should report it to your local health department. Stay clear if you see an animal acting erratically, particularly if it’s a wild animal that approaches you. Be sure to get your pet out of harm’s way.

Conclusion

While getting rabies from a cat scratch isn’t that common, it’s a possibility, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution and get yourself checked out, particularly if the cat seems to be unwell. If you work in a field that frequently deals with animals, it’s recommended that you stay up to date with your rabies vaccine.

Always keep your pets up to date on their vaccines too. In many states and provinces, it’s mandatory that your dogs and cats get their rabies booster, which not only ensures their safety but also yours.


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