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Rabies

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of warm-blooded animals, including humans.

Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

In Canada, bats, foxes, skunks and raccoons are the most common transmitters of the disease.

Is rabies a risk to human health?

Yes. Worldwide, over 50,000 people die annually from rabies. However, human rabies deaths are rare in North America. Prompt treatment following exposure to or a bite from an animal suspected of having rabies can prevent human illness. The following actions are recommended:

  • immediately wash the wound or exposed surface with soap and water;
  • remove any clothing that may have been contaminated; and
  • seek medical advice as soon as possible.

What are the clinical signs of rabies?

Animals with rabies may show a variety of signs. The disease can appear in two forms:

Dumb rabies

  • Domestic animals may become depressed and try to hide in isolated places.
  • Wild animals may lose their fear of humans and appear unusually friendly.
  • Wild animals that usually only come out at night may be out during the day.
  • Animals may have paralysis. Areas most commonly affected are the face or neck (which causes abnormal facial expressions or drooling) or the hind legs.

Furious rabies

  • Animals may become very excited and aggressive.
  • Periods of excitement usually alternate with periods of depression.
  • Animals may attack objects or other animals. They may even bite or chew their own limbs.

Where is rabies found?

Rabies is found worldwide. It is common to both Canada and the U.S.

How is rabies transmitted and spread?

Rabies is transmitted through saliva, primarily via bite wounds. It can also be spread when infected saliva comes into contact with a scratch, open wound or the mucous membranes of the mouth, nasal cavity or eyes. When the virus enters an animal’s body, it moves through the nerves to the brain, where it multiplies quickly. The virus then proceeds to the salivary glands and other peripheral parts of the body.

The incubation period (from initial exposure to clinical symptoms) may range from two weeks to many months. It can depend on a number of factors, including the strain of rabies and the location of the bite. However, it is important to note that an animal can transmit the disease a few days before showing any clinical signs.

How is rabies diagnosed?

There is no treatment for this disease. Public health departments can administer post-exposure prophylaxis immediately following exposure. Vaccination is recommended for persons involved in high-risk occupations.

All domestic animals should be vaccinated in areas where rabies is known to occur.

What is done to protect Canadian livestock from rabies?

Rabies is a “reportable disease” under the Health of Animals Act. This means that all suspected cases must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for immediate investigation by inspectors.

These regulations are enforced through port-of-entry inspections done either by the Canada Border Services Agency or the CFIA.

How are the risks associated with rabies managed?

Controlling the spread of rabies is the responsibility of the public, the veterinary profession, public health departments, wildlife departments and the CFIA.

The public can help reduce the spread of rabies through responsible vaccination of pets, as well as informing authorities when an animal is suspected of having the disease. Keeping pets under control, teaching children not to play with wild animals or pets they don’t know, keeping a safe distance from wildlife and not trying to raise orphaned or injured wildlife all contribute to preventing rabies.

The veterinary profession can educate clients regarding the value of vaccinating pets, and the vaccination requirements for pets travelling to other countries.

Public health departments collaborate with the CFIA regarding national and provincial rabies policies and the response to animal-human incidents. Other than Quebec, provincial/municipal health authorities manage dog bite incidents.

Various wildlife departments are involved in vaccinating wildlife species, surveying the extent of wildlife rabies in certain geographic areas, as well as surveying the extent of rabies in certain species.

The CFIA is responsible for submitting samples and diagnosing rabies, establishing quarantines where indicated, approving rabies vaccines, implementing border controls, providing geographic and species statistics, developing national policy and continuing research.

All of these efforts help reduce the incidents of rabies and rabies exposure.

How do I get more information?

Contact your CFIA Area office:

Atlantic Area: 506-851-7651

Quebec Area: 514-283-8888

Ontario Area: 519-837-9400

Western Area: 403-292-4301

You can find your local CFIA District Office

  • on the CFIA website at www.inspection.gc.ca
  • by consulting the blue pages of your local phone directory.