Rabies is a contagious and fatal disease. It is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system of mammals, including human beings. The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of infected domestic and wild animals, when they bite or scratch.
Rabies is one of the most serious diseases transmissible to humans because it is fatal from the moment a person has general symptoms. However, there are preventive measures that can be taken before the onset of symptoms.
Rabies cases in Québec
The last reported case of human rabies in Québec goes back to October 2000. In North America, cases of human rabies were associated to contact with bats.
All domestic and wild animals can be affected by the rabies virus. For further information, go to Rabies in animals page.
People infected with the rabies virus first show the following general symptoms:
- Feeling unwell, as at the onset of a cold
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms can appear up to 10 days before the onset of neurological symptoms, which are manifested in various forms:
- Pain, numbness or itching on or near the bite or scratch
- Weakness or tremors in the part of the body that was bitten or scratched
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing
The following symptoms can also appear in some people and may vary in duration:
- Aggressive behaviour
- Fear of water
- Muscle weakness
- Severe paralysis
- Difficulty or inability to speak
When to consult
If you’ve been bitten, scratched or if you think you have been in contact with the rabies virus through a wild or domestic animal, contact Info-Santé 811 as soon as possible.
Rabies is usually transmitted through the bite or scratch of an infected animal. You can also get rabies if the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with:
- Your eyes
- The inside of your nose or mouth
- An existing wound
Only mammals can be infected with the rabies virus and spread the disease. In North America, wild animals that spread rabies most of the time are:
Other animals can also get rabies if they are scratched by an infected animal or come into contact with its saliva during a bite. These include:
- Other wild animals
- Pet animals, such as:
- Farm animals, such as:
These animals can then infect humans.
Time delay between the virus entering the human body and the onset of the disease
The incubation period for rabies is the time delay between the entry of the virus into the body and the appearance of symptoms. This period can vary from 2 weeks to several months, and even up to a year. In humans, this period usually varies from 20 to 90 days. The duration of the incubation period depends, among other things, on where the person has been bitten and the severity of the bite. As such, symptoms appear quicker if a person is bitten in the head or neck, or if he or she has serious bites in several places.
A dog, cat or ferret that has been in contact with an infected animal can have the rabies virus in its saliva for up to 10 days before showing symptoms. An animal can therefore spread rabies even if it appears healthy.
Rabies is not spread through contact with the blood, urine or feces of an infected animal. It is still recommended to avoid contact with these biological materials, which can transmit other diseases or parasites.
Signs of the presence of rabies in animals
To find out the signs of rabies in animals, go to the following sections on the Rabies in animals page:
Treating the disease
There is no effective treatment to heal rabies after the onset of symptoms. From the moment symptoms appear, death is inevitable and generally happens within the next 14 days. You must therefore act quickly to prevent the onset of symptoms after being bitten, scratched or coming into contact with the saliva of a potentially infected animal.
Preventive measures after coming into contact with a potentially infected animal
Cleaning the wound
- Even if the wound does not appear serious, clean it immediately with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes. Rinse mucous membranes (such as eyes, mouth, or nose) exposed to the animal’s saliva with clean water (no soap) for several minutes.
- Call Info-Santé 811 immediately for instructions on:
- Required health care (wound care and vaccination against tetanus and rabies): A nurse will tell you if it is necessary that you consult a doctor. For the Terres-Cries-de-la-Baie-James and Nunavik regions, contact your medical clinic.
The potentially infected animal: If it was a pet or livestock animal (e.g., a cat, a pig) that bit or scratched the person, keep the animal alive and under observation. Depending on the animal, a healthcare professional will request an observation period of at least 10 days under MAPAQ supervision from the date of the incident. In the case of a wild animal, such as a bat or racoon, analysis may also be required.
See the notice for owners of dogs, cats, or ferrets that bite (in French) for more information on the observation period for pets. Keep the animal alive and under observation.
Depending on the assessment of the situation, a series of vaccines started given soon after a bite, scratch or contact with the saliva of a potentially infected animal is an effective way to prevent rabies.
Protection and prevention
Rabies can be prevented by adopting safe habits.
Be careful when you are around animals in order to avoid being bitten and having contact that can spread rabies. This is the simplest way to prevent rabies. Here are a few tips to follow:
- Never touch a bat that is alive or dead.
- Do no touch a dead or sick animal with your bare hands. If you do it involuntarily, wash your hands with soap immediately.
- Avoid approaching, touching, petting or feeding unknown, stray or wild animals, even if it looks harmless.
- Teach children about safe behaviours around animals and never leave young children unsupervised with an animal.
- Never let your pets stray and avoid contact with wild or stray animals.
- Keep dogs in a place that is protected from wild animals, either tied up or on a leash.
- If you see stray animals, inform your municipality quickly.
- If an animal bites your pet, consult a veterinarian quickly. Avoid touching your pet, and wear gloves to protect yourself. Indeed, the fresh saliva of the animal that did the biting could be on your pet’s fur or wound.
- Prevent raccoons, skunks and bats from coming around your home and your pet shelters. You can block access to buildings and garbage cans, for instance. To learn more, go to the page Dissuasive solutions .
- Do not care for or adopt orphaned wild animals, even if they seem harmless. In addition to being illegal, adopting wild animals puts you at risk of various diseases.
If you own a pet, such as a cat or a dog, it is strongly recommended that you have them vaccinated against rabies, starting at 3 months of age, whether or not they go outdoors. Vaccination gives pets full protection against rabies and reduces the risk of the virus spreading between animals and from animals to humans.
Vaccinating farm animals
If you own farm animals such as cows, pigs, sheep or horses, consult a veterinarian to find out if you should have them vaccinated against rabies.
Reporting a suspicious wild animal
Do not hesitate to report suspicious wild animals such as raccoons, skunks and foxes. Do so even if you have not been in contact with these animals.
To find out what situations you should report and how to do so, go to the Report a suspicious animal page .
Go to the Rabies in animals page to find out more about rabies in wild and domestic animals.
Go to the Raccoon rabies surveillance and control operations page to find out what the Government is doing to keep Québec free of this variant of rabies.
In Québec, rabies is a reportable disease. Laboratory workers and doctors who discover a case of rabies are required to inform public health officials.
Veterinarians must also report all suspicious cases of rabies in animals to the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation.
Last update: June 15, 2021