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revised December 18, 2015

Environmental Health

Animals, bugs and pets

Rabies

What is Rabies?

Rabies is an infectious viral disease that affects the central nervous system of humans and warm-blooded animals. It is spread through the saliva and mucus membranes of an infected animal. Humans and other mammals can become infected through a bite, cut or scratch from an animal with rabies or if the rabies virus comes into contact with the mucus membranes in their mouth, nose or eyes.

In Ontario, the animals that most often transmit rabies are foxes, skunks, bats and raccoons. Pets and humans can become infected when they come in contact with these animals. However, the chance of running into a rabid animal in Ontario is very low.

Small rodents such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks and rabbits are almost never found to be infected with rabies. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animals were sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies was widespread in the area.

Once symptoms appear, rabies is always fatal in animals and people.

There are several different stains of rabies virus in Ontario. The three primary strains include Arctic fox, racoon and bat rabies, with several variants of bat rabies. While the rabies strains are named after the species in which the viral strain circulates most often, it is important to know that any mammal can be infected with any of the strains.

Rabies in Humans

Symptoms

Early symptoms of rabies in humans include fever, headache and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, excessive salivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

What should be done if a person has been exposed to an animal that may have rabies?

If someone has been bitten or scratched by an animal that may have rabies, or suspects they have been bitten or scratched, they should:

  • clean and wash the bite or scratch thoroughly with soap and water,
  • seek medical attention immediately, and
  • report the incident to Peel Public Health at 905-799-7700. A Public Health Inspector will investigate the incident.

Rabies can be prevented if you seek medical treatment promptly following exposure to a rabid animal.

Treatment

Treatment for rabies, after the person was exposed to a potentially rabid animal, called rabies prophylaxis, usually consists of a series of four injections given over 14 days (0, 3, 7, 14). The treatment is safe and effective. See Canadian Immunization Guide for more information.

Prevention

  • Avoid animals that are behaving strangely.
  • Keep a safe distance from wild animals, even if they look healthy.
  • Do not feed wild animals.
  • Teach your children not to handle wild animals or pet animals they do not know.

Rabies in Animals

Rabies in animals can appear in two basic forms Dumb rabies and Furious rabies.

Signs of dumb rabies

  • Some animals may become depressed and retreat to isolated places.
  • Wild animals, especially skunks, may lose their fear of humans.
  • Animals may show signs of paralysis such as abnormal facial expressions, drooping heads,sagging jaws or paralyzed hind limbs.

Signs of furious rabies

  • Animals may show extreme excitement and aggression.
  • Animals may gnaw and bite their own limbs.
  • Animals may attack stationary things or other animals.
  • Attacks of furious rabies usually alternate with symptoms of depression

How long does it take for an animal to show the symptoms of rabies after it has been infected?

From the time of exposure, it can take from two weeks to several months for the symptoms to start showing in animals.

Can animals have rabies without showing any symptoms?

Yes. The rabies virus can be found in animal saliva days before any obvious symptoms develop. From the time of exposure, it can take from two weeks to several months for the symptoms to start showing in many animals. Eventually, all animals that have the virus will develop symptoms and die of the disease.

How can I protect my pet from getting rabies?

  • Have your pets vaccinated against rabies as recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Keep your pets on a leash and do not let them run free, especially at night.
  • Call your local animal control agency if you see any wild animals that are acting strangely.

Prevention

  • Have your pets vaccinated against rabies as recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Avoid animals that are behaving strangely.
  • Keep a safe distance from wildlife, even if they look healthy.
  • Do not feed wild animals.
  • Teach your children not to handle wildlife or pet animals that they do not know.

Rabies in Bats

People can get rabies from infected bats. Careless handling of bats is the primary source of rabies exposure to humans. The major concern about bat rabies is that bites or scratches can easily go undetected because of bats' small needle-like teeth and claws.

What should I do if I come in contact with a bat?

If you were bitten or scratched by a bat, or if saliva from a bat gets into your eyes, nose, mouth or a wound, wash the affected area thoroughly and get medical advice immediately.

Bats have sharp, needle-like teeth that may cause a bite with marks that are not easily seen. You should seek medial advice even if you do not have an obvious bite wound when:

  • a bat comes into direct contact with a person by touching, or landing on a person
  • a bat has been found in a room with an infant, a sleeping person, or a person who cannot communicate.

You should also contact Peel Public Health by calling 905-799-7700.

People cannot get rabies just from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave or at distance. You cannot get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine.

What should I do if my pet has been exposed to a bat?

Contact a veterinarian for assistance immediately and have the bat tested for rabies. Remember to keep vaccinations current for cats, dogs and other animals.

How can I keep bats out of my home?

Bats should always be prevented from entering rooms of your home. Here are some suggestions on how to bat-proof your home:

  • Carefully examine your home for holes that might allow bats to enter. Any openings larger than a quarter-inch by a half-inch should be sealed.
  • Use window screens, chimney caps, and draft-guards beneath doors to attics.
  • Fill electrical and plumbing holes with stainless steel wool or caulking and ensure that all doors to the outside close tightly.
  • Observe where the bats exit at dusk and exclude them by loosely hanging clear plastic sheeting or bird netting over these areas. Bats can crawl out and leave, but cannot re-enter. After the bats have been excluded, seal the openings permanently.
  • During summer, many young bats are unable to fly. If you exclude adult bats during this time, the young may be trapped inside and die or make their way into living quarters. If possible, avoid exclusion from May through August.
  • Most bats hibernate in the fall or winter, so these are the best times to bat-proof your home.

If you find a bat in your home, do not handle it by yourself. For assistance with removing a bat from your home and bat-proofing, contact your local Animal Services or wildlife conservation agency.

Rabies in Raccoons

Raccoon rabies is of concern in Ontario because raccoons are very common in this province, especially in urban areas. They are not afraid of humans and have learned to live in towns and cities as well as the countryside. Some people like to feed and handle raccoons. This increases the chances of people and pets becoming infected with rabies. However, the Ministry of Natural Resources has successfully controlled and contained the spread of racoon rabies in Ontario. The province is currently raccoon rabies free, with the last case of raccoon strain rabies being reported in 2005.

Raccoon rabies is carried in the animal's saliva, mucus membranes and central nervous system tissue. Because there is no cure for rabies once the symptoms of the disease appear, anyone bitten by an animal must seek medical attention and call Peel Public Health at 905-799-7700.

How can I keep raccoons out of my home?

  • Do not feed or provide shelter for raccoons.
  • Cover up potential entrances, such as uncapped chimneys, loose shingles and openings in attics, roofs and eaves.
  • Make a raccoon den unliveable.Keep the area brightly lit as raccoons prefer darkness.
  • Always cover garbage cans and composters. Use a heavy weight to keep the lid in place.
  • Make sure that bird feeders, especially suet feeders, are on slippery poles or on wires which raccoons cannot climb.
  • Make sure that all raccoons, including the young ones leave the area before sealing up holes in any part of the building. This is especially important between March and July which is raccoon breeding season.
  • Block the entrances to a raccoon den once you are sure that all animals have left. You can use sheet metal.
  • Repair siding and holes in buildings and use heavy rustproof screening to cover open-air vents or chimneys.
  • Trim all overhanging tree branches or any other structure that animals might use to get on to the roof of a residence or a detached building.
  • As raccoons are attracted to lawns and gardens, especially after a rainfall when grubs and larvae are near the surface, deter them from coming by sprinkling pure soap flakes on the lawn and watering thoroughly, or by mixing bone meal in the garden soil. You can also sprinkle diluted tabasco sauce over fruits and vegetables (wash before eating).

For more information on rabies, call Peel Public Health at 905-799-7700.


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Revised: December 18, 2015

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