What is rabies?
Rabies is a fatal disease caused by a virus which belongs to the Lyssavirus genus of the Rhabdoviridae family and infects mammals. The vast majority of human cases are due to bites from infected dogs, but rabies can also infect and be spread by cats. Rabies virus is shed in the saliva of an infected animal and is transmitted when that saliva comes into contact with wounds or mucosal surfaces (e.g. if the infected animal bites another animal, or licks an open wound on their body). It then makes its way along the nerves to the brain, where it causes a range of clinical signs before resulting in death. Rabies kills approximately 60,000 people worldwide every year (WHO) and is a major public health concern.
Could my cat get rabies?
Most pet cats in Hong Kong are at a very low risk of rabies. Hong Kong does not currently have a rabies problem; most cats in Hong Kong have only ever lived here; and most pet cats live indoors and have no contact with at-risk animals.
On the other hand, if your cat has come from a country with rabies and has been imported into Hong Kong without going through the appropriate health checks, vaccinations and quarantine periods, or if you don’t know where your cat came from, then there is a risk that he/she might have been exposed. The best solution to this is NEVER to buy, adopt or order a cat from mainland China or other countries where rabies is a problem; or at least not without following all legal procedures. Make sure you know where the cat has come from. And remember – even cute and apparently healthy kittens can carry rabies.
Should I vaccinate my cat against rabies?
Unlike dogs, there is no legal requirement to vaccinate cats against rabies in Hong Kong. Because of this, and because of the low risk of exposure, cats are not routinely vaccinated against rabies here. Cats can be vaccinated against rabies, but if you believe there is a particular reason why your cat is at risk, you should raise it with your vet and/or with the local authorities: chances are other animals and people are at risk too.
What are the symptoms of rabies?
Signs of rabies in cats can include fever, loss of appetite, changes in behaviour, aggression, paralysis, weakness, incoordination, seizures and death. After being infected, it can take weeks or months for a cat to show any signs; however, once signs are present, the cat will usually deteriorate rapidly over several days and then die.
How do I confirm if my cat has rabies?
If you suspect your cat might have been exposed to animals with rabies and/or you suspect your cat might have rabies, you must report this to the police or the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) immediately, as it is a public health risk. Similarly, if your vet suspects that your cat might have rabies, he/she is legally and ethically bound to report it. Take care not to let any people or animals get bitten or scratched by your cat.
It is extremely difficult to confirm a diagnosis of rabies in a living animal. After assessing a suspected rabies case, the authorities will decide whether to quarantine or euthanize the animal. If the animal dies in quarantine or is euthanized, its brain is submitted to a laboratory for a definitive diagnosis.
What is the rabies situation in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is officially a rabies-free territory; however, rabies is a serious problem in mainland China – including Shenzhen and elsewhere in Guangdong. Animals are often illegally smuggled from mainland China into Hong Kong, particularly as part of the pet trade; as a result, Hong Kong is constantly at risk of a rabies reintroduction. There are strict laws to prevent and control any rabies outbreaks.