When people hear the word “rabies,” they often think images of mad, vicious animals foaming at the mouth and ready to attack! However, this isn’t entirely accurate – there are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding rabies.
So, let’s get the story straight!
What is RABIES?
Rabies is a contagious, viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. It travels along the nerve cells, spreading to the spinal cord and brain.
Who is at risk?
If exposed to the disease, all mammals, including humans, pets, livestock, and wildlife are at risk. Rabies is classified as a “zoonotic disease,” which means it can spread among various animal species.
How is rabies contracted?
Rabies is contracted through the saliva of the host. Therefore, if saliva is exchanged between an infected animal and another animal, such as through biting (enough to break the skin), licking of an open sore or wound, or by entry through the mouth, eyes, or nose, the rabies virus can be transmitted. For example, when animals fight, scratches and bites can create open wounds, by which the disease can spread. Airborne cases are very rare.
Who are the carriers of the disease?
In Canada, cases of rabies are most often the result of transmission from infected raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Coyotes, wolves and possums are susceptible to rabies, but are rarely infected in Ontario. Pets and livestock are often exposed to the disease due to contact with wildlife when outdoors.
What are the symptoms?
During the early stage of exposure, signs of rabies may resemble general illness, such as:
- Fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, discomfort, lack of interest in food, difficulty swallowing, cough, restlessness, irritability
- Look for signs of bite marks, scratches, dried saliva on fur
There are two forms of rabies in animals: the dumb form and the furious form. Some animals can show signs of both forms.
A. Dumb Form
Animals with the dumb form of rabies may:
- lose their fear of humans
- become depressed and retreat to isolated places
- become partially paralyzed (watch for abnormal facial expression, drooling, drooping head, sagging jaw, strange sounds, or paralysis in the hind limbs that spreads to the rest of the body)
B. Furious Form
Animals with the furious form of rabies may:
- be extremely excited and aggressive
- gnaw at and bite their own limbs
- attack other objects or animals
- be alternately agitated and depressed
What should you do if bitten by a stray or wild animal?
Seek medical attention immediately if you are bitten by a stray dog, cat or wild animal. Post-exposure human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) injections can be life-saving! Please remember that post-exposure injections are not the same as the vaccine injections given to your pet!
Tips to Stay Safe
- Keep pet cats indoors.
- If your pet, is outdoors, never let them roam unsupervised.
- Keep dogs on a leash to minimize exposure to stray and wild animals.
- Walk dogs during the day to avoid contact with potential carriers such as bats, skunks, and raccoons—all predominantly nocturnal animals.
- Do not feed wildlife and never let children approach wildlife.
Pet Safety: The Rabies Vaccine
The rabies vaccine is the safest and most effective way to protect your pet, and indirectly yourself.
Pets should be vaccinated every one to three years, depending on the type of rabies vaccine administered. Keep records and schedules to be sure vaccines are kept up to date.
What happens if my pet is exposed to a rabid animal?
Contact the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300. Cats or dogs exposed to a rabid animal will go through an observation period.
The observation period for vaccinated animals is usually around ten days, but will be based on the age and health of the pet and previous number of rabies vaccinations.
Unvaccinated pets are quarantined for six months.
Do indoor pets still need to be vaccinated?
Indoor pets still need their rabies vaccination to be up to date, both for their protection and yours. Because rabies is a zoonotic disease, often with fatal outcomes to humans, there are laws requiring pets be vaccinated. Fines and/or legal action may result should an unvaccinated pet bite or scratch someone, including a visitor to your home. In addition, sometimes, despite our best efforts, indoor pets get outside unsupervised. If your pet gets out and is unvaccinated, they are unprotected in the event they end up in an altercation with a dangerous and diseased animal.