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What is Rabies?

Printable Fact Sheet

Rabies is an infectious disease caused by a virus that infects nerves in warm-blooded animals. The rabies virus reaches the brain through the nervous system.

Eventually it reaches the salivary glands, and can be released into the saliva of the mouth. By this time, the disease has usually affected the brain and caused a change in the behaviour of the animal. It eventually causes death.

Although the animal may be infectious, it could be a few days before any clinical signs or symptoms show, but they are still able to transmit the disease.

ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF RABIES?

There are different strains of rabies, but unlike flu strains, one vaccine protects against all strains. There are two strains presently in Ontario: 'arctic fox' (predominantly in foxes and skunks), and a variety of bat strains.

HOW IS RABIES SPREAD?

Rabies moves from an infected animal through the saliva by:

  • biting
  • contact with the virus through an open cut, sore, or wound
  • contact with the virus through mucous membranes (mouth, nose, eyes)

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF RABIES?

In humans, early symptoms may include numbness around the bite, fever, headache, and general malaise. Later symptoms may include muscle spasms and hydrophobia (fear of water).

In an adult, the average incubation period is three to eight weeks. However, clinical symptoms can appear as soon as two weeks after exposure, or up to one year following exposure. Once symptoms appear, death is imminent.

DOES MY PET'S RABIES VACCINATION WORK FOR ALL STRAINS OF RABIES?

Yes. If your pet's vaccination is current, your pet is protected from fox, raccoon, and bat strain rabies. Rabies vaccinations in Ontario are mandatory for all domestic cats, dogs, and ferrets. If your dog or cat didn't get vaccinated during a routine veterinary visit, you can take advantage of the low-cost rabies clinics in your area in the fall. Check with your local veterinarian or on the health unit's website - Low Cost Rabies page - for a posted schedule.

HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF, MY FAMILY, AND MY PET(S)?

The best prevention is to reduce your risk and your animal's risk of coming in contact with an infected animal.

For your pet:

  • Don't let your pets run free. Keep them indoors at night.
  • Keep all your animal's vaccinations current. Owners are required by law to vaccinate cats, dogs, and any animals that are exposed to the public such as sheep, cows, and horses at petting zoos and riding stables.
  • Protect yards and gardens from small animals.

Remind children that you can't always tell if an animal is friendly or has rabies, so they should:

  • Always ask permission before petting any dog or cat.
  • Tell an adult right away if they ever see a lost, unknown, or injured animal.
  • Never touch or play with ANY wild animal, even squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits, and bats.
  • Tell an adult right away if they have ever touched or have been scratched or bitten by ANY animal.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I'M BITTEN BY AN ANIMAL?

All bites and scratches from a suspect animal must be reported. If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, wash the wound well with soap and water and contact your family physician immediately.

Either you, your doctor, or the hospital emergency department must report the incident to the local health unit. If you are reporting the incident to the health unit, include as much information as you can about the animal and if possible, the owner's name, address, and phone number. Public health inspectors will use this information to contact the owner, check rabies certificates, and decide what other actions are needed.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

For more information, call Health Connection at 705-721-7520 or 1-877-721-7520 Monday to Friday.

For more information on children and dog bite prevention, visit www.kidshealth.org.

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