Fact Sheet - Rabies

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans.

Once clinical signs appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

In Canada, bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks are the animals most commonly diagnosed with rabies.

Is rabies a risk to human health?

Yes. Worldwide it is estimated that over 70,000 people die annually from rabies. However, human rabies deaths are rare in North America. Prompt treatment following exposure a bite or other exposure from an animal suspected of having rabies can prevent human illness. The following actions are recommended:

  • immediately and thoroughly 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 clinical 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. In Canada and the U.S., where the prevalence of rabies is relatively low, the disease is more commonly found in wildlife than in domestic animals.

How is rabies spread?

Rabies is caused by a virus that is transmitted through saliva, primarily via bite wounds. The virus can also be transmitted when infected saliva comes into contact with a scratch, open wound or the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes. When the virus enters an animal's body, it moves through the nerves to the brain, where it multiplies quickly. The virus can then spreads to the salivary glands and other organs.

The incubation period (the time from the initial exposure to the appearance of clinical signs) may range from two weeks to many months. It can depend on a number of factors, including the strain of rabies virus and the location of the bite. During this time, the animal is clinically healthy and generally considered unable to spread the disease to others.  However, infectious virus may be present in saliva several days before the animal becomes noticeably ill.  

How is rabies diagnosed?

Rabies in animals can only be definitively diagnosed by examining specific areas of the brain following death. Laboratories of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) provide testing for animals that have potentially exposed a person or a domestic animal to rabies and for human suspect cases.

Can rabies be treated?

There is no treatment for rabies once clinical signs appear. Medical professionals can administer post-exposure prophylaxis (vaccination) to a person following exposure to an animal suspected of carrying the disease. Pre-exposure vaccination is recommended for anyone involved in occupations that put them at high risk of rabies exposure.

All domestic animals should be vaccinated in areas where rabies is known to occur. Canada is not rabies free. Animal owners should consult with their veterinarian about an appropriate vaccination schedule for their pets and livestock.

Who is responsible for rabies management in Canada?

The management of rabies and human health is the responsibility of provincial and territorial health authorities. Any incident involving potential human exposure to rabies should be reported to local public health authorities.

Rabies is a "reportable disease" under the Health of Animals Act and Regulations. This means that all suspected cases must be reported to the CFIA.

The CFIA is responsible for:

  • diagnosing rabies in samples submitted to CFIA laboratories
  • approving rabies vaccines
  • implementing border controls
  • reporting geographic and species statistics
  • developing national policy
  • continuing research

How are the risks associated with rabies managed?

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

The public can help reduce the spread of rabies by vaccinating 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.

Various wildlife departments are involved in vaccinating wildlife species and surveying the extent of wildlife rabies in certain geographic areas or species.

All of these efforts help reduce the incidence of rabies and rabies exposures.

Contacts for more information

For more information on rabies management, please contact your veterinarian, local health authority, provincial or territorial government or the CFIA.

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