When To Get A Rabies Shot After A Bite

A considered approach should be taken by a person who has been bitten by a cat or any other animal when getting a post-bite rabies shot – what the medical profession call: Rabies Post-exposure Prophylaxis (RPEP). Prophylaxis means: treatment! This page concerns the USA. I was prompted to write this because the press quite often report “rabid cat” stories. I hate that terminology. Being bitten by a strange cat does not mean being bitten by a rabid cat although common sense dictates that playing safe is wise considering the severity of the disease.

RPEP Protocol

Rabies Vaccinations

Obviously, not every cat bite results in the need to rush to a medical centre for rabies shots. And I am referring here to people who have not had a preventative rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccine is typically administered after a bite. Only people who work in high risk environments are advised (or it is obligatory) to have the preventative vaccination.

The vaccine to prevent the progress of the disease is given in four shots in the shoulder (called: pre-exposure prophylaxis). The first is given immediately after the possible exposure to rabies and then 3, 7 and 14 days later3.

Note: If the wound caused by a suspected rabid animal is cleaned and immunisation is carried out within a few hours after contact the onset of rabies and death can be prevented.

In the USA the CDC sets out the protocol (the steps that are taken in the process called RPEP).

There are two types of exposure:

  1. Bite
  2. Infectious material entering body via wound

The guidelines for when to be given a post-exposure vaccine (RPEP) is as follows (shortened version):

Exposure by a domestic animal that has no signs of rabies and is healthy etc. do not undertake RPEP until the animal has been observed for 10 days.

If exposed by a dog, cat, ferret that cannot be observed (because they have disappeared, for example) the person is recommended to initiate PREP if animal control has decided that the bite was unprovoked and the animal was behaving strangely. This means taking a clear, objective approach to reporting and consulting with the health district. You might like to read this story.

If exposed by a wild animal such as a fox or coyote the person should go down the PREP route if the animal has not been captured and tested or if brain testing of the animal can’t be completed with 24 hours or the brain specimen shows up rabies. If a test is done and proves negative RPEP should be stopped.

If exposed by a bat the person should initiate RPEP under the same criteria as for wild animals such as foxes etc.. Additional advice for bat exposure is that if a person was in the same room as a bat but unaware of possible exposure to rabies, RPEP should be considered.

Exposure to a small animal (rabbit, rat, mouse, squirrel) RPEP is not recommended because these animals are rarely infected and rodents are not reservoirs for rabies.

  1. Main source for article
  2. Picture credit: Rikki’s Refuge
  3. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
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When To Get A Rabies Shot After A Bite — 9 Comments

  1. Due to people advocating for free-roaming cats, you are FOUR TIMES more likely to encounter a rabid cat than contracting rabies from any dog today…..

    Note from Michael: I have deleted the remainder because part of it contains insults directed at me…..However, if Woody wants me to publish it he/she can rewrite it in polite language. In the meantime I’ll address the above comment….

    You are referring to reported cases. There were approx. 300 reported cases of rabid cats in the USA in 2009 compared to 81 dogs.


    “90% of all rabid animals reported to CDC each year occur in wildlife”.

    “There has not been a single case of a human contracting rabies from a cat in the past 40 years in the U.S.” (Alley Cat Allies).

    There are an estimated 80m domestic cats and 80m feral cats in the USA = 160m

    300 cats out of 160m represents a 0.0001875% rate of rabid cats amongst the entire population.

    Woody, stop scaremongering and stop attacking the cat.

    “Dogs are the source of the vast majority of human rabies deaths.” (World Health Organisation)

    Wake up Woody boy 😉

  2. A serious reality here. There was an alert about a week ago for a rabid cat in the downtown area. It can be alarming for people who don’t know what it entails and what precautions to take when approaching any animal they don’t know or is in the wild.
    This isn’t a country where a child can see a stray and say, “Let me pet the kitty Mommy.”
    It’s terribly sad.
    Much, much more education needs to be done so people will be able to identify the signs of rabies and not be afraid to befriend a cat that is no threat.
    Most any agency dealing with animals require employees to be vaccinated. It’s, purely, voluntary on my part because I have so much contact with raccoons that are the major rabies risk.

    • The situation in America is completely different to the UK on rabies. We don’t have rabies as you know. Even animal shelter workers don’t have the rabies shot. Although with mass immigration and a slackening of pet travel rules things might change here.

  3. That is very interesting Michael. I’m glad we don’t have rabies in our country but I was thinking in days gone by didn’t people used to have to have painful injections into their stomach after being bitten by a possibly rabid animal?

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