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What is rabies?
Rabies is a fatal disease of the nervous system. It is caused by a virus that can infect all warm-blooded animals, including humans. The virus attacks the brain and spinal cord, causing severe nervous system dysfunction and eventually death.
How is rabies transmitted?
The most common way to contract rabies is through a bite from an infected animal. When a rabid animal bites, rabies virus in its saliva passes through the broken skin of the victim. Rabid cats can also transmit rabies through their scratches if they have saliva on their paws.
In Alberta, bats are the only reservoir of rabies virus. However, it is possible for other wild and domestic animals to become infected with and transmit bat rabies. Spillover of bat rabies to other animals, which is most commonly observed in cats, generally does not result in sustained outbreaks. Rabies is maintained by different species in different places. Pets that originate from or travel outside of Alberta may be at an increased risk of rabies exposure and disease.
Signs of rabies
The symptoms of rabies can be quite varied. In general, the disease shows three stages that occur in succession. (NOTE: not every animal will display these signs, so any animal behaving abnormally should be regarded with suspicion)
Stage 1 - Attitude Change
- The animal may show nervousness, shyness, aggression or other changes in its normal personality.
- May show a lack of fear of humans.
Stage 2 - Furious or Excitable Phase
- Animals may become extremely agitated, or behave erratically.
- Animals may bite and snap at anything
- Wild animals may wander into unaccustomed areas and attack livestock, people or pets.
- The tone of an animal’s voice may change as its vocal cords become paralyzed.
- Seizures may occur.
Stage 3 - Paralysis
- Victims become progressively paralyzed.
- Animals may be unable to move their hind limbs and unable to swallow, resulting in choking and frothing at the mouth.
- This phase ends in death, usually from paralysis of the respiratory muscles
Rabies cannot be diagnosed with certainty based on symptoms alone. The suspicion of rabies can only be confirmed by testing samples of an animal’s brain tissue.
Vaccination is an inexpensive, effective means of protecting your animals from rabies. All pets should be vaccinated regularly against rabies. Large animals in high risk situations may also need to be vaccinated. Your veterinarian can develop an appropriate vaccination schedule for your animals.
You can minimize the risk of rabies by avoiding close contact with wildlife. Remember, rabid animals often lose their fear of humans and may appear unusually friendly. Also ensure your house is unattractive to wild animals by keeping garbage bins securely fastened and sheds and garages closed. Exclude bats from your home and attic by repairing openings that may allow them to enter. If your domestic animals are bitten or scratched by a wild animal, consult your veterinarian immediately.
What if I think I’ve been exposed to rabies?
Prompt medical attention is essential. If you’ve been bitten by any animal, clean and disinfect the wound thoroughly, then contact your doctor, local public health office, or Health Link at 811 immediately. If the biting animal can be confined without further danger, it should be kept in a secure area until appropriate management has been determined. Rabies is a reportable disease in Alberta and Canada. Healthy domestic animals that bite a human are typically observed for signs of rabies for ten days. Wild animals as well as domestic animals showing signs of rabies may be euthanized for testing. Your physician, public health official or veterinarian will contact Alberta Rabies Program staff if testing is required.
Remember - rabies is a fatal disease! Every biting incident should be investigated, even if the animal in question appears healthy.
Post exposure treatment
If rabies exposure cannot be ruled out, people who are bitten are treated with a series of injections. Domestic animals that may have been exposed to rabies should be vaccinated as soon as possible (within 96 hours), even if they have been previously vaccinated. In both humans and animals the disease is almost always fatal once signs of nervous system dysfunction appear. For more information about rabies, contact your local veterinarian.
If you want to travel with your pet
Owners are required to present proof of current rabies vaccinations at customs for dogs and cats traveling to certain countries outside Canada. A period of quarantine (usually six months) may be required. Before you travel abroad with your pet, contact your veterinarian.
Minimize the risk
- Vaccinate pets and high risk livestock regularly - see your veterinarian.
- Keep away from wild animals, no matter how friendly they appear.
- Keep wild animals away - securely fasten garbage bins and close garages and sheds.
See Rabies Prevention and Control on Alberta.ca for more information about the Alberta Rabies Program.
Learn more about World Rabies Day 2022.
This video shared with permission from WDDC.