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 in Québec
The last reported case of human rabies in Québec goes back to October 2000. In North America, cases of human rabies were most often associated to contact with bats.
Rabies exists in the following forms:
- Bat rabies
- Arctic fox rabies (in the northern regions of the province)
- Red fox rabies (in the northern regions of the province)
- Raccoon rabies (in the southern part of the province)
Bat rabies is the most common in Québec, followed by the Arctic fox rabies.
Cases of raccoon rabies were reported in Québec from 2006 to 2009 and in 2015. Preventive control and surveillance operations have taken place in the Estrie and Montérégie regions since 2010. Given that many cases of raccoon rabies are confirmed each year in the United States, a few kilometres from Québec, the emergence of raccoon rabies in Québec is a real threat.
People infected with the rabies virus first show the following general symptoms:
- Feeling unwell, as at the onset of the flu
- 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:
- Short-term symptoms:
- Aggressive behaviour
- Fear of water
- Muscle weakness
- Severe paralysis
- Difficulty or inability to speak
When to Consult
If you think you have been in contact with the rabies virus through a wild or domestic animal, contact Info-Santé 811as soon as possible.
Rabies is usually transmitted through the bite or scratch of a rabid animal. You can also get rabies if the saliva of a rabid 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:
- Domestic 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 a rabid 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 a rabid animal. It is still recommended to avoid contact with these biological materials, which can transmit other diseases or parasites.
Indications of the presence of rabies in animals
Animals infected with the rabies virus show the following symptoms:
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in behaviour:
- Tendency to bite for no reason
- Confusion (the animal looks lost)
- Change in habits: an animal that is usually active at night can become active during the day
- Paralysis, with excessive production of saliva
To learn more about rabies in animals, consult the government website on raccoon rabies (in French only).
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
What to do if you have been bitten or scratched by an animal or come in contact with its saliva:
- Even if the wound does not appear serious, clean it immediately with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Promptly call Info-Santé 811. A nurse will tell you if it is necessary that you consult a doctor.
Depending on the assessment of the situation, a series of vaccines 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 wild or domestic animals in order to avoid being bitten or 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 the carcass of a dead or sick animal with your bare hands. If you do it involuntarily, wash your hands immediately.
- Avoid approaching, touching, petting or feeding unknown, stray or wild animals. Teach your children to do the same. Keep an eye on young children playing with domestic animals.
- If you have a dog or a cat, get it vaccinated against rabies.
- Do not let your pets roam. Keep dogs in a safe place, tied up or on a leash.
- If you see stray animals, inform your municipality.
- If an animal bites your pet, consult a veterinarian. Avoid touching your pet, and wear gloves to protect yourself. Indeed, the fresh saliva of the animal that did the biting could be in 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.
- 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 cat or a dog, it is highly recommended that you get it vaccinated against rabies, whether it goes outdoors or not. The vaccine effectively protects domestic animals and reduces the risk of spreading rabies from animals to humans.
The government’s plan to fight raccoon rabies in the regions of Estrie and Montérégie includes the spreading of vaccine baits. This operation consists of dispersing baits in the nature to vaccinate wild animals. The animals eat the baits and are subsequently protected against rabies. These baits are safe for domestic animals but are not meant for them. Consult a veterinarian to find out about recommendations of current vaccination to protect effectively your pets against rabies. Be sure to respect these recommendations.
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
In the Estrie and Montérégie regions
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. This measure aims to prevent raccoon rabies from spreading in these regions.
A wild animal is considered suspicious in any of the following situations:
- It is dead, including as a result of a road accident
- It has one of the following symptoms:
- It appears to be very sick
- It is dying
- It looks confused
- It is unusually aggressive
- It is paralyzed
You can report a suspicious animal to the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP) in one of 2 ways:
- Online, by completing a short form (in French) on the raccoon rabies government website
- By calling 1 877 346-6763
In other regions of Québec
The enhanced rabies surveillance program is limited to the Estrie and Montérégie regions. In other regions, you can also report sick or dying wild animals that have symptoms similar to rabies to the MFFP by calling 1 877 346-6763.
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 domestic animals to the ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation (MAPAQ).
Rabies is a major problem in developing countries. It is the cause of more than 60,000 deaths every year.
Last update: 15 December 2016, 14:55