If you have been bitten or scratched by an animal or in contact with its saliva, consult the Treatment section of rabies in humans.
If you suspect that your domestic animal has rabies, consult your veterinarian immediately.
Rabies is a contagious and deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. It can affect all mammals, including humans. For further information, visit the page Rabies in humans.
The virus is usually transmitted through infected saliva that gets into a wound or mucous membrane. The infected person or animal then develops irreversible symptoms that cannot be cured. From the moment symptoms appear, death is inevitable.
Minor differences in the virus make it possible to identify, through specialized laboratory tests, different “variants”. The variants of rabies are named according to the main animal species responsible for the transmission of the virus. It is possible that an animal species may be infected with a different variant of rabies than the one usually associated with its species. The major difference is that the virus will usually not persist in another species, although it does cause disease there.
Bat rabies is the most common variant of rabies in Québec and is present in all regions and in all bat species . In North America, it is the most frequently involved in the transmission of rabies in humans and has caused the most deaths in humans in recent decades.
Arctic fox rabies
Arctic fox rabies occurs in northern areas up to about the 55th parallel. It affects both Arctic and red foxes . The red fox is suspected of having caused waves of arctic fox rabies cases in southern Québec between 1950 and 2000.
Raccoon rabies mainly affects raccoons and striped skunks . From 2006 to 2009, cases were identified in southern Québec. They were reportedly introduced from the states of Vermont and New York. Since then, only one case has been detected in Québec, in 2015 near the border between Ontario and the United States. Thanks to control and surveillance operations carried out since 2006, this variant can now be considered eradicated from Québec territory. However, the threat of reintroduction from the United States remains very real.
Signs of disease in wild animals
Rabies, regardless of the variant, can occur in two forms in wild animals. The infected animal often exhibits behavioural changes or progressive paralysis, in addition to one or more of these symptoms.
In the furious form, the animal exhibits extreme excitement and aggressiveness, sometimes alternating with periods of depression. The animal bites its owb limbs, attacks inanimate objects, other animals or humans.
In the paralytic form (also called dumb rabies), the animal's usual fear of humans may cease. A nocturnal animal can also become active during the day. The animal can also be depressed or amorphous, and withdraw to isolated spots. The infected animal may finally show symptoms of partial or complete paralysis:
- abnormal facial expression;
- excessive salivation;
- sagging of the head and jaw;
- issuing of strange sounds.
Paralysis of the body usually begins with the hind legs and spreads to the rest of the body.
In bats, rabies most often manifests itself in paralysis of the limbs. It is therefore not uncommon for bats to find themselves on the ground, unable to fly. Otherwise, they may also be disoriented, collide with obstacles, circulate during the day rather than at night or make high-pitched sounds.
Signs of the disease in domestic animals
Symptoms of rabies in domestic animals progress rapidly to death within 10 days, preceded by one or more of the following manifestations:
- behavioural changes or behaviour contrary to habit
- sudden and inexplicable depression or fatigue
- more aggressive attitude towards people, other animals and objects and even towards itself
- tendency to bite for no reason
- tendency towards isolation
- decreased appetite or difficulty eating or drinking
- different or unusual vocalizations
- excessive salivation
- chewing on the wound site where the animal was exposed to the rabies virus
- hyper-responsiveness to touch, sound and light
- disorientation or staggering gait
- partial or complete paralysis
If an animal has symptoms compatible with rabies, it is important to isolate it. Contact with humans and other animals should be minimized.
A veterinarian should then assess the situation as soon as possible.
Transmission and incubation period
Rabies is usually transmitted by a bite or scratch from an infected animal. An animal can also get rabies if the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with:
- its eyes
- inside its nose and mouth
- an existing wound
Animals can also get rabies by eating the carcass of an infected animal.
Most infected animals can transmit the virus several days before symptoms appear. For example, domestic animals can transmit the virus through their saliva up to 10 days before symptoms appear. In some species such as bats, this period can exceed 14 days. This means an animal that looks healthy can still transmit rabies.
If a domestic animal is vaccinated against rabies preventively, the risk of transmission and concerns are reduced. To be protected and to protect those around it, the animal must receive the vaccine booster doses on the dates prescribed by the veterinarian. The rabies vaccine is very effective unless given to an animal already in the incubation period.
Always assume that a dead animal can still contain the virus and avoid handling it with bare hands.
The survival of the rabies virus depends on the duration of its exposure to open air and climatic conditions. It is quickly destroyed by heat, drought and sunlight but can survive in a frozen carcass.
Delay between the entry of the virus into the animal’s body and the onset of the disease
In wild animals
The time between the introduction of the virus into the body and the onset of symptoms is poorly documented for most wild animal species. It can vary from a few days to several months and depends among other things on:
- the species of the biting animal
- the location and severity of the bite (for example, head and neck bites and multiple severe bites are associated with shorter incubation periods)
- the species that has been bitten
- the variant of the rabies virus in question
In domestic animals
The time between the introduction of the virus into the body and the onset of symptoms (incubation period) generally varies from 2 weeks to 6 months for dogs, cats and ferrets. This delay is less well documented in other domestic animals. It will depend on the same factors mentioned above for wild animals.
No treatment is available for animals that have developed signs of the disease. Death usually occurs within 10 days of the onset of symptoms.
Protection and prevention
What to do if you have been bitten or scratched by an animal or in contact with its saliva:
- Even if the wound seems minor, clean it immediately with soap and running water for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Contact Info-Santé 811 as soon as possible. A nurse will inform you if you need to consult a doctor. For the Cree Territory of James Bay and Nunavik region, please contact your medical clinic.
- If a domestic animal bites or scratches a person, the animal must be kept alive and under observation. For a dog, cat or ferret, this observation period (of the biting animal) (in French) (PDF 110 Kb) is 10 days following the injury. This precaution makes it possible to check whether or not the animal will develop signs compatible with rabies. The Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec supervises these observation periods, in collaboration with the owner of the biting animal and at the request of a health professional. By consulting Info-Santé 811 quickly, you will ensure that this observation period is respected.
Action to be taken if a domestic animal has been in contact with a suspicious animal:
- Clean the wound with soap and running water for 10 to 15 minutes. It is important to use gloves to do this.
- A veterinarian must evaluate the animal in order to put in place appropriate measures to prevent the development of the disease.
Rabies can be prevented by adopting safe habits. There are also several deterrents to keep unwanted wild animals away . If you wish to dislodge bats, consult the site Bat watch for further information.
Protection of northern Québec dogs against rabies
People exposed to a dog from northern Québec or thinking of adopting a northern dog (PDF 104 Kb) must be vigilant. In this region, rabies is permanently present.
It is recommended to vaccinate all dogs over 3 months of age in northern communities. Eligible communities can apply by completing the registration form (PDF 52 Kb) to the Program to provide technical assistance to Northern communities for the protection of dogs against rabies (PDF 146 Kb).
In the absence of veterinarians in this area, call 1‑844‑ANIMAUX to get support for actions to be taken for pets exposed to rabies or showing signs of the disease. Above all, make sure to isolate the animal quickly (in a pen or in a closed room, or to secure it away) to prevent it from biting a person or another animal.
Notices for domestic animal owners
Consult the intervention guides concerning the isolation and containment methods of domestic animals subject to rabies surveillance (in French).
Information for veterinarians
A citizen who suspects the disease in his or her pet must declare it to a veterinarian. If the suspicions are well founded, the veterinarian must immediately contact the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec at 1‑844‑ANIMAUX).
Notices for veterinarians
Last update: October 14, 2020