Rabies in cats is a fatal, viral disease that can spread across animal species and humans alike. This means it is called a ‘zoonotic’ disease. It has a rapid onset of action and once a rabies infection has been established, there is no specific treatment to cure it.
For this reason, we rely on the prevention of rabies in cats (and dogs!) using vaccination. To do this and educate ourselves about rabies, we need to know exactly how rabies is spread amongst humans and animals and if it could be transmitted to humans by an infected pet sneezing on us.
How does rabies in cats and other species spread?
The most common mode of infection is through a bite from an infected animal. Usually, this is from an infected dog but it’s also possible for a cat to bite and spread this disease. This allows the rabies virus present in the animal’s saliva to penetrate skin tissue and spread rapidly throughout the nervous system. Specifically, it enters the peripheral nervous system and then travels along the efferent nerves to the central nervous system. Once it reaches the central nervous system (the brain), it causes encephalitis which is inflammation of the brain. From here, symptoms of rabies in cats develop.
Other routes of infection of rabies
Although a bite from a rabid animal is the most common route of infection, other routes are also possible. Saliva entering mucous membranes, scratches, open wounds or direct contact with infected nervous tissue are all possible routes of transmission. These routes are rare and less likely to occur. However, it poses the question: could a person get rabies if they were sneezed on by an infected animal?
Could a person get rabies from a pet’s sneeze?
As we know, a less common route of infection would be saliva from an infected animal entering the mucous membranes. Mucous membranes are membranes (skin) that line the inside of body cavities and some organs. Mucous membranes that are visible on the outer body include the eyes, eyelids, inside the mouth, inside the nose, and genital areas.
Now that we know what mucous membranes are, would it be possible to become infected through these areas? Yes, it’s possible. It’s possible that a dog or cat with rabies that sneezes and projects out infected saliva could potentially penetrate your eyes, open mouth, or wounds if you were nearby.
However, even though a person can become infected from a pet’s sneeze it would be an extremely rare way of contracting rabies. It’s much more likely that a person would become infected by a rabid dog, as dogs infected with rabies become aggressive and are highly likely to bite. Cats with rabies can also bite, but less commonly than dogs. Another way for humans to get rabies is from contact with rabid bats. Although rare, this is still a more common route to catch rabies than a pet’s sneeze.
Preventing the chance of infection from a sneeze
Catching rabies from a sneeze is very rare. However, there are precautions that you can take to reduce your risk.
Firstly, vaccinating your pet against rabies prevents them from catching and spreading the disease. This is the best thing you can do to stop all risks of your cat spreading rabies.
If you have any open wounds or cuts on your skin, make sure to clean them well and keep them covered. Covering the wounds creates a physical barrier against saliva and prevents infection through a sneeze if you were to come in contact with a cat or dog with rabies.
If you are dealing with an animal with rabies, ensure that you wear appropriate protective clothing (PPE) including eye goggles. This will prevent any saliva from coming in contact with your mucous membranes or skin.
What should I do if my pet is sneezing?
If your pet is sneezing (which is very common in cats with cat flu), ensure that you seek veterinary attention to treat the underlying cause and get the sneezing under control. A once-off sneeze is ok but regular sneezing wouldn’t be normal and would need veterinary examination.
A sneeze is only potentially dangerous to you if your pet has a disease that can spread to humans. This is relatively rare.
What should I do if I think a rabid animal has sneezed on me?
If a rabid animal has sneezed in close proximity to you and you think saliva has come in contact with your mucous membranes or an open wound, it’s vital to take action. According to the World Health Organization, this would fall into Category 3 and would require post-exposure prophylaxis measures. This includes wound washing and flushing for at least 15 minutes with soap and water, detergent, or iodine. In any situation where you think rabies contamination may have occurred, waste no time in immediately seeking medical advice and intervention.
Take home message
Rabies virus is normally spread through a bite from an infected animal on a human, 99% of human cases are from an infected dog bite. Rabies can also spread by non-bite methods, such as infected saliva entering mucous membranes or an open wound. Considering this, it’s possible for instance that a sneeze with infected saliva from a cat with rabies (or dog) could cause rabies infection if it entered mucous membranes or a wound. While this is extremely rare, if you know a pet is infected by rabies, you should take every precaution to protect yourself from infection.
Does a pet sneeze have rabies?
It’s possible that a pet infected with rabies could spread rabies by sneezing in close proximity to you. This would occur if the pet’s saliva came in contact with your mucous membranes or an open wound on your skin. This is very rare and it’s much more common to get infected with rabies through a dog bite. Most sneezes from pets will not spread rabies.
Are pet sneezes harmful?
No, in general, pet sneezes aren’t harmful unless the pet is infected with a zoonotic disease that can spread to humans. This is rare. However, you should wash your hands after any contact with sneezing pets.
Can a human catch a cold from a dog or cat?
No, cat and dog colds don’t spread to humans. However, it’s still recommended to practice good hygiene around any pet that is unwell.
Can I get rabies if my pet licks my hand?
Most licks from a pet are harmless. However, if your pet has rabies and licks broken skin or a wound, it’s possible that you could get rabies. This is rare.