Rabies - Frequently Asked Questions

What is rabies?

  • Rabies is an infectious disease that is caused by a virus.
  • Infection with the rabies virus leads to acute viral encephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) and ultimately, death.
  • Any warm-blooded animal can get rabies, including humans.
  • The most common carriers of the rabies virus in Ontario are:
    • raccoons
    • foxes
    • skunks
    • coyotes
    • bats

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How does rabies spread?

  • The rabies virus is present in the saliva of an infected animal and is usually transmitted by a bite.
  • Rabies may also be transmitted if infectious material (such as saliva) of the infected animal enters a wound or mucous membrane such as the eyes, nose or mouth.
  • The virus enters the nerves in the open wound or the mucous membranes and travels to the brain.

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What are the signs and symptoms of rabies in animals?

Signs of rabies in animals may include:

  • wild animals acting friendly or tame;
  • hiding in isolated areas and depression;
  • loss of fear of humans, especially skunks (e.g., they do not run away when approached by humans or domestic animals);
  • paralysis, such as abnormal facial expressions, drooping heads, sagging jaws or paralyzed hind legs;
  • extreme excitement and aggression;
  • gnawing and biting their own legs;
  • attacking objects or other animals; or
  • frothing at the mouth.

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What are the signs and symptoms of rabies in humans?

  • Initial symptoms are usually flu-like with fever, headache, and nausea.
  • As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
    • insomnia
    • anxiety
    • slight or partial paralysis
    • increased activity, restlessness
    • hallucinations
    • difficulty swallowing
    • a fear of water
  • Death can occur within days of the onset of symptoms, usually as a result of respiratory failure.
  • Once symptoms appear, rabies is usually fatal.

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How long does it take for rabies to develop?

  • In animals, development of symptoms can be from 2 weeks to many months.
  • In humans, symptoms usually develop after 3 - 8 weeks. In some cases, symptoms have appeared as early as 9 days and as long as 7 years after exposure.
  • The length of time depends on a number of factors including:
    • the severity of the bite
    • location of bite
    • the amount and the strain of the rabies virus.

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What should I do if I am bitten or scratched by an animal?

  • Wash the wound (or mucous membrane) immediately with soap and water and remove any clothing that may be contaminated with saliva.
  • Contact your family doctor.
  • Notify animal control services if necessary.
  • Report the incident immediately to your local Health Department and provide as much information as possible related to the incident, including:
    • Name and address of pet owner.
    • Description of animal.
    • Any other information that will help in finding the animal.

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How do I know if an animal was contagious with rabies when it bit or scratched me?

  • Procedures are followed by the Health Department to determine whether or not an animal was contagious with rabies when a bite or scratch has occurred.
  • Although it can take awhile for rabies to develop, the virus is only contagious for a short period of time before symptoms appear in the infected animal.
  • Dogs, cats and ferrets are confined for a 10-day isolation period at a location approved by the Health Department (usually the owner's home). During this time the animal is observed for signs of rabies.
  • If the animal was contagious at the time of the incident, it will display signs of rabies within the 10-day period.
  • If the animal involved cannot be located and observed, the victim may require post-exposure rabies treatment.

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Will I get rabies if I am exposed to an infected animal?

  • It is possible to get rabies following exposure to an infected animal, however, rabies can be prevented in humans with the administration of a post-exposure rabies treatment, or prophylaxis, as soon as possible following an exposure.
  • Once symptoms develop, rabies is usually fatal.

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Is there a vaccine against rabies?

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