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 usually spread through the saliva of infected domestic and wild animals, when they bite or scratch or if they lick an open wound, broken skin, and eyes, mouth or nose.
Rabies is one of the most serious diseases transmissible to humans because it is fatal as soon as general symptoms appear. However, preventive measures can be taken before the onset of symptoms.
Rabies cases in Québec
The last reported case of human rabies in Québec dates back to October 2000. In North America, human rabies cases are mostly associated with contact with bats.
All domestic and wild animals can be affected by the rabies virus. For further information, see the page Rabies in animals.
People infected with the rabies virus first show the following signs and general symptoms:
- Feeling unwell, as at the start 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 at or near the site where the person was bitten, scratched or licked
- Weakness or tremors in the part of the body that was bitten, scratched or licked
- Muscle twitches
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing
The following symptoms may also appear in some people and may vary in duration:
- Aggressive behaviour
- Fear of water
- Muscle weakness
- Severe paralysis
- Difficulty or inability to speak
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 open wound
Only mammals can be infected with the rabies virus and spread the disease. In North America, wild animals that most often spread rabies are:
Other animals can also get rabies if they have high-risk contacts with an infected animal. The virus is spread in the same way as it is in animal-to-human transmission, as described above. The following animals can therefore infect humans:
- Wild animals
- Pets, such as:
- Farm animals, such as:
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 and parasites.
Time delay between the virus entering the human body and the onset of the disease
In humans, the signs and symptoms of rabies may appear within 20 to 90 days of contact with the virus. This depends, for example, on the part of the body that came into contact with the virus and the severity of the bite or scratch. Symptoms will therefore appear more quickly if people receive bites to the head or neck, or severe bites in multiple places.
The rabies virus can be present in the saliva of an infected animal several days before the animal shows symptoms. For example, in dogs, cats and ferrets, this period can last up to 10 days. An animal can therefore spread rabies even if it appears healthy.
Signs of the presence of rabies in animals
To find out the signs of rabies in animals, go to the following sections on the page Rabies in animals:
Actions to take after coming into contact with a potentially infected animal
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.
1. Clean the wound
Even if the wound does not appear serious, clean it immediately with soap and plenty of water for 10 to 15 minutes. Rinse mucous membranes (such as eyes, mouth, or nose) exposed to the animal’s saliva with running water (without soap) for several minutes.
2. Call Info-Santé 811 immediately
A nurse will explain the treatment you will need (wound care and a tetanus-rabies vaccination). They will tell you if you need to see a doctor. For the Terres-Cries-de-la-Baie-James and Nunavik regions, contact your medical clinic.
3. Keep the animal in question alive
It is important not to get rid of the animal. A health professional will instruct you what to do with it.
If the potentially infected animal is a pet or livestock (such as a cat or a pig), keep it alive and under observation. A health professional may request an observation period of at least 10 days under the ministère de l'Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l'Alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ) supervision from the date of the incident. See the notice for domestic animal owners (in French) for more information on the observation period for pets.
In the case of a wild animal, such as a bat or racoon, analysis may also be required. While you wait for more specific instructions, it is important not to get rid of the animal.
Go to the page Rabies in animals to find out more.
Protection and prevention
Rabies can be prevented with safe habits.
Be careful when you are around animals in order to avoid bites and contact that can spread rabies. This is the simplest way to prevent rabies. Here are a few tips to follow:
- Never touch a live or dead bat.
- Do not touch a dead or sick animal with your bare hands. If you do it accidentally, wash your hands with soap immediately.
- Avoid approaching, touching, petting or feeding strange, stray or wild animals, even if they appear harmless.
- Teach children about safe behaviours around animals and never leave young children unsupervised with an animal.
- Never let your pets roam free, and prevent them from having contact with wild or stray animals.
- Keep dogs on a leash, or tied up in a place away from wild animalsIf you see stray animals, inform your municipality quickly.
- If an animal bites your pet, contact a veterinarian quickly. Avoid touching your pet, and wear gloves to protect yourself. The fresh saliva of the animal that did the biting could actually 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 Deterrents .
- 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 for 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, talk to 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 page Report a sick or a dead raccoon, skunk or fox .
Go to the page Raccoon rabies surveillance and control operations to find out what the government is doing to keep Québec free of this variant of rabies.
There is no cure for rabies after the onset of symptoms. As soon as symptoms appear, death is inevitable and generally happens within 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.
Particular requirements to report 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 report all suspected cases of rabies in domestic animals to the MAPAQ and those in wild animals to the ministère de l’Environnement, de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, de la Faune et des Parcs.
Last update: December 22, 2022