Fact Sheet - Rabies
On this page
- General information
- Different strains of rabies virus
- Clinical signs of rabies
- How rabies is diagnosed
- Where rabies is found
- Rabies risk to human and animal health
- Rabies prevention
- Who regulates and manages rabies in Canada
- Mitigating rabies risks
- Additional information
Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system of mammals, including humans.
Once clinical signs appear, rabies is almost always fatal.
In Canada, the animals that most often transmit rabies are wildlife species, such as bats, skunks and foxes.
How rabies spreads
Rabies is caused by a virus that is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. While bites are by far the most common form of exposure, the virus can also be transmitted if infected saliva comes in contact with a scratch, open wound, or the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes. When the virus enters the body, it moves through the nerves to the brain, where it multiplies and then spreads to the salivary glands and other organs. Once this occurs, the animal is able to spread the infection to other animals or to people.
Rabies incubation period
The incubation period (the time from the initial exposure to when clinical signs appear) for rabies is highly variable and depends on many factors. Some of the factors include the location of the bite and how much virus entered the wound.
The incubation period for rabies can vary between 2 weeks to 6 months, but in some cases it can be even longer.
Experimental studies have shown that some animals can shed virus in saliva up to 2 weeks before clinical signs of sickness appear. This means the infected animal can spread the disease even before they start to look sick.
Different strains of rabies virus
There are many different strains (or variants) of rabies virus, each associated with a particular animal species in which it easily becomes established and spreads (known as the "reservoir"). However, all variants can cause disease in other animal species, including in humans. The distribution of rabies virus strains can vary depending on the reservoirs and geographic region.
Wildlife rabies virus variants ("wildlife rabies")
These strains become established in and spread amongst wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. However, these viruses can still be transmitted to other animals, which are known as spill-over events. This is why it is important to keep pets and livestock vaccinated against rabies.
Wildlife rabies is present in Canada. It is possible for humans, pets and livestock to be infected by wildlife rabies.
Canine-variant of rabies virus ("dog rabies")
Rabies caused by canine-variant viruses (dog rabies) becomes established and circulates within dog populations and is responsible for the majority of rabies-related human deaths throughout the world. Dog rabies represents a significant risk to human health due to the close contact between dogs and people.
Dog rabies is currently not present in Canada.
Clinical signs of rabies
Animals infected by any variant of the rabies virus may show a variety of clinical signs. The disease can appear in 2 forms:
- Domestic animals may become depressed and try to hide in isolated places
- Wild animals may lose their fear of humans and appear unusually friendly
- Wild animals that usually only come out at night may be out during the day
- Animals may exhibit paralysis of the limbs, neck or face (causing abnormal facial expressions or drooling)
- Animals may become very excited and aggressive
- Periods of excitement usually alternate with periods of depression
- Animals may attack objects or other animals
- They may even bite or chew their own limbs
How rabies is diagnosed
Rabies in animals can only be definitively diagnosed by examining specific areas of the brain following death. Laboratories of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) provide testing for animals that have potentially exposed a person or a domestic animal to rabies and for human suspect cases.
Where rabies is found
Rabies is found in many countries. In Canada and the United States, the prevalence of wildlife rabies is relatively low. It is more frequently diagnosed in wildlife, and occasionally in livestock and pets. Canada does not have dog rabies.
Rabies risk to human and animal health
Rabies poses a serious risk to human health as it is a fatal disease. While human rabies deaths are rare in North America, globally, dog rabies kills an estimated 59,000 people every year. Over 100 countries are considered to be at high-risk for dog rabies, which is the main cause of human cases of rabies.
Rabies is similarly fatal in animals. There is no cure and animals suspected of rabies need to be euthanized. Currently, wildlife rabies presents risks to wildlife populations as well as to pets and livestock. Were dog rabies to be introduced and become established in Canada, the risks to dogs and people would increase, especially in communities where access to veterinary care, and preventative vaccination, is limited.
Because of the presence of rabies in wildlife, Canada is not rabies-free. However, we still want to prevent the introduction of new strains of rabies into Canada, like dog rabies.
There is no treatment for rabies once clinical signs appear, but it can be prevented through vaccination of susceptible animals and preventing human exposure to potentially infected animals.
Pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis for people
If a person is bitten by an animal that is suspected to have rabies, prompt treatment following exposure can prevent human illness. The following actions are recommended:
- immediately and thoroughly wash the wound or exposed surface with soap and water
- remove and clothing that may or may have been contaminated; and
- seek medical advice as soon as possible
Medical professionals can administer post-exposure prophylaxis, which consists of wound cleansing, followed by administration of rabies immunoglobulin and rabies vaccine.
A pre-exposure vaccination is recommended for people at high risk of close contact with rabid animals or the rabies virus, such as:
- laboratory workers handling the rabies virus
- people with occupational exposure to animals (such as veterinarians)
- hunters and trappers in areas with confirmed rabies
- certain travelers
Learn more about the Rabies vaccine: Canadian Immunization Guide.
Vaccination for pets and livestock
To be effective, the rabies vaccine must be administered to healthy animals. The rabies vaccine is unlikely to be protective if it is administered after an animal has already been infected with rabies.
Most pets and livestock that live in Canada should be vaccinated. Animal owners should consult with their veterinarian about an appropriate vaccination schedule for their pets and livestock.
Learn more about Rabies in pets.
Rabies serology test
The rabies neutralizing antibody titre test (RNATT) is a serology test used to assess the level of neutralizing antibodies against the rabies virus in the blood. While it is not used to diagnose rabies, this test can be used to assess whether animals have responded adequately to vaccination.
Who regulates and manages rabies in Canada
Rabies management is a shared responsibility of the public, veterinary professionals, provincial and territorial authorities, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the CFIA.
The management of rabies cases in humans is the responsibility of provincial and territorial health authorities. Any incident involving potential human exposure to rabies (for example, a bite or a scratch from a wild animal) should be reported to local public health authorities.
Rabies is a reportable disease under the Health of Animals Act and Reportable Diseases Regulations. This means that all suspected cases in animals must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) immediately.
The CFIA posts monthly updates of laboratory-confirmed rabies cases in Canada.
The CFIA is responsible for:
- diagnosing rabies in samples submitted to CFIA laboratories
- approving rabies vaccines for animals
- developing import requirements
- reporting geographic and species statistics
- developing national policy
- conducting research
- providing expert scientific advice on a national and international level
Mitigating rabies risks
Controlling the spread of rabies, preventing exposure of humans and animals, and preventing the introduction of new rabies strains into Canada is a shared responsibility of the public, veterinary community, and federal and provincial governments.
Veterinary professionals can educate clients on the importance of vaccinating their pets.
People who travel to other countries with their pet or choose to purchase/adopt a pet from abroad should consult a veterinarian to discuss the health risks and ensure their pet is properly vaccinated.
Some provinces have programs for oral vaccination of wildlife, which has been very effective in reducing rabies cases in wildlife. Some provinces also survey the extent of wildlife rabies in certain geographic areas or species.
How you can help
- Vaccinate your pets and livestock, keep them under control and at a safe distance from wildlife
- Teach children not to play with wild animals or pets they don't know
- Don't raise orphaned or injured wildlife
- Contact local provincial authorities if you find sick, injured, or dead wildlife
- Ask questions before getting a dog from abroad
- If you choose to adopt or purchase a dog from abroad, ensure they are properly vaccinated against rabies and meet any other import requirements before travelling to Canada
All of these efforts help reduce the exposure to and incidence of rabies.
For more information on rabies management, please contact your veterinarian, local public health authority, provincial or territorial government or the CFIA.
- Learn more about Rabies (Public Health Agency of Canada)
- CFIA Animal Health Offices
- Rabies vaccine: Canadian Immunization Guide
- World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH; founded as Office International des Épizooties (OIE)), Terrestrial Animals Health Code: Rabies
- Rabies in Canada
- Need to know: Rabies in Pets
- Date modified: