Rabies: Prevention and risks

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How rabies spreads

Rabies is a disease in animals caused by a virus that can spread to humans. It's a very serious disease that almost always leads to death in animals and people once symptoms develop.

It usually spreads through direct contact with saliva from an infected animal, such as through a bite or less commonly through a scratch. Even very tiny bites or scratches, such as from bats, which can be difficult to see, can transmit the virus.

In rare circumstances, you can get rabies if:

  • a rabid animal licks:
    • an open cut, scratch, sore, rash or other wound
    • your mucous membranes (such as your eyes, nose or mouth)
  • you have direct contact with an infected animal's brain or nervous system tissue or fluids

Rabies does not spread through:

  • petting a rabid animal
  • contact with a rabid animal's blood, urine or feces

Any mammal can be infected with rabies, including:

  • domestic animals, such as:
    • dogs, cats and ferrets (both stray/feral and household pets)
    • farm animals, such as horses, cattle and other livestock
  • wild animals, such as:
    • bats
    • foxes
    • skunks
    • raccoons
    • other wild mammals

Small mammals are unlikely to transmit rabies because being bitten by a rabid animal is usually fatal. As such, it's rare to find rabies in:

  • rats
  • mice
  • gerbils
  • rabbits
  • squirrels
  • chipmunks

In very rare circumstances, rabies could be transmitted through:

  • airborne spread after exposure in a laboratory
  • airborne spread in caves where infected bats roost
  • handling and skinning an infected carcass after contact with brain and nervous system tissues or fluids
  • eye and organ transplants from someone who died from undiagnosed rabies
  • contact with saliva and nervous tissue from someone who shows symptoms of a rabies infection
    • while possible, this has never been reported to have happened

Preventing rabies

You can prevent rabies by getting vaccinated before exposure to potentially rabid animals. This is recommended for groups at higher risk of exposure to rabies.

Immediate medical care after an exposure to a potentially rabid animal can also prevent rabies.

To reduce the risk of rabies:

  • keep away from sick or dead animals
  • closely supervise children around animals
  • avoid touching or feeding unknown, stray or wild animals
  • routinely vaccinate your pets and livestock against rabies
  • be aware of the risk of rabies in your area and in areas where you travel
  • know the signs of rabies and report an animal that's acting strangely to:
    • your local public health unit
    • your provincial or territorial public health authority
    • animal control

Signs of rabies in animals

If you've been exposed

If you've been exposed to an animal that may have rabies, follow these steps.

  1. Remove any clothing that may have been contaminated with an infected animal's:
    • saliva
    • brain and nervous system tissue or fluids
  2. Immediately clean any wound thoroughly with soap and water, and flush the wound with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.
    • If a bat touches your bare skin, also wash the area as you may not have felt or noticed a bite or scratch.
    • Do not cover the wound.
    • Seek medical attention right away to find out your risk and treatment options.
  3. If the animal has an owner, note their contact information for public health officials, which includes the person's:
    • name
    • email
    • address
    • phone number
  4. If the animal is a bat or other wild animal, confine it to a room if it's safe to do so.
    • Confining the animal may allow it to be captured and tested for rabies.
    • Do not do anything that would put you at further risk of exposure.

Your health care provider will consult with your local public health authority to determine if you need treatment to prevent rabies based on:

  • the animal involved
  • the type of exposure
  • the nature of the event
  • whether rabies is circulating in the area where you were exposed
  • if the animal is available and can be observed for signs of rabies or tested

Report the location of the suspected rabid animal to your health care provider so the animal can be:

  1. located
  2. confined
  3. monitored for rabies symptoms under quarantine when it's safe to do so (domestic animals only)
  4. tested for rabies if possible or necessary

Who is most at risk

Children are considered at higher risk of rabies infection because they are:

  • more likely to play with animals
  • more likely to be bitten by animals
  • less likely to tell an adult if they've been bitten, scratched or licked

Always supervise children around animals and make sure that they:

  • stay away from sick or dead animals
  • only touch an animal if an adult is present
  • know to tell an adult if they have any contact with an animal while unattended

You're at higher risk of rabies infection if you spend time in areas where you're more likely to come into contact with:

  • potentially rabid animals
  • the rabies virus

For example, if you work or volunteer in these positions:

  • veterinary staff
  • animal control officer
  • animal shelter or rescue worker
  • any direct work with wildlife, including bats
  • hunter, trapper or taxidermist in areas where rabies circulates
  • laboratory researcher or technician who works with the rabies virus

You're also at higher risk if you:

  • go spelunking or cave exploring
  • travel to countries and areas where:
    • rabies is widespread
    • there's limited access to adequate and safe rabies treatment

Talk to your health care provider about getting the rabies vaccine if you're at increased risk of being exposed to the virus.

Rabies occurs worldwide, so it's important to follow precautions when travelling in areas rabies is known to circulate.

Rabies: Travel health advice

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