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Rabies

 

Definition

Rabies is a very serious zoonotic (from animals) disease caused by a rabies virus. It is transmitted through saliva (spit), usually by the bite of a mammal. This virus infects the brain and nervous system of mammals. If not treated in time, a rabies infection is almost always fatal.    

Transmission

Most humans get infected with rabies after being bitten by an infected mammal. Any mammal can be infected by the virus. Wild animals, domestic pets and farm animals have all been known to carry the disease.

In British Columbia (BC), the only animals that carry rabies are several species of bats. About 0.5% of bats carry rabies in BC. Bat bites and scratches may transmit rabies. Bats should be left undisturbed unless there is a suspicion of rabies exposure or other harm.  

In BC, rabies spread through bites from other animals is rare. However, strange behaviour in pets and other animals may mean they are infected with rabies. Avoid contact with any wild or unfamiliar animal.    

In other parts of Canada, rabies is found in wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, red foxes and arctic foxes. 

Dog bites cause most human rabies in developing countries. They are responsible for most of the 55,000 cases of rabies per year worldwide. Most cases occur in Africa and Asia. 
 

Rabies in People

What do I do if I may be exposed to rabies?


If you are bitten or scratched by an animal that you think may have rabies, you should:

  • Immediately wash the wound well with soap and water under moderate pressure (e.g. a running tap) for at least 15 minutes, then flush thoroughly with water. This lessens the chance of any infection.
  • Seek medical attention from your doctor or local public health unit (http://www.immunizebc.ca/finder) immediately.
  • If rabies shots are received in time, rabies in humans can be prevented. If you wait until the symptoms start to appear, it is usually too late to begin effective medical treatment.

Two products are used to prevent rabies:

  • One dose of rabies immune globulin that helps to neutralize the virus before it becomes established, and
  • Four doses of rabies vaccine given over 14 days that help your immune system make antibodies against the virus.

What are the symptoms of rabies in people?


Symptoms generally appear three to eight weeks after exposure but could take up to several years. They include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • difficulty swallowing
  • excessive drooling muscle spasm or weakness
  • strange behavior

If vaccinations to prevent the disease are not administered before the onset of symptoms, death is almost certain.

 

Rabies in Animals

What do I do if my pet may be exposed to rabies?


If your pet is bitten or bites a bat or another potentially rabid animal:

  • Take your pet to your veterinarian
  • If the bat or other potentially rabid animal is available, your vet may send it for rabies testing
  • Your veterinarian may give your pet rabies shots and may ask you to keep your pet in your home for several months to see if it develops signs of rabies
  • Your pet is only at risk of transmitting rabies to you or another pet if it is showing signs of the disease or in the few days before it develops signs of rabies.

What are the signs of rabies in animals?


  • All mammals are able to transmit and become infected with rabies. Two forms of rabies seen in animals are ‘furious’ and ‘dumb.’ The furious form causes animals to show aggression, while the dumb form results in animals being sick and lethargic.
  • Suspicious behaviour in bats includes weakness, loss of flight ability and daytime appearances. If a bat is hanging off the ground, it should not be considered suspicious.

What do I do if I find a wild animal which may be rabid?


 

Managing Bats

How do I manage live bats?


Bats are protected under the Wildlife Act of BC, making it illegal to kill or test bats unless there is a health risk. When there has been no contact between a person or a pet and a bat, bats should not be captured or tested. An attempt to capture a bat may increase the risk of contact. Since no vaccine is recommended if there is no contact, there is no point in testing such bats.

If someone has been bitten or scratched by a bat, the bat can be tested for rabies. If the bat is still alive and can be captured, contact a wildlife professional or a pest control company. Your local public health unit (http://www.immunizebc.ca/finder ) may also be able to suggest someone to help.

If no one is available to capture the bat, and the person previously scratched or bitten (exposed) is willing, they can attempt to capture the bat themselves. Do not attempt to capture the bat if you have not had previous contact with it, as this will increase your chance of contact with a potentially rabid animal.

  • If the bat is inside, close all doors and windows in the area.
  • Put on a hat, leather or puncture-proof gloves, a long-sleeved jacket, and pants.
  • Use a blanket, net, broom or towel to catch the bat (without touching it and while protecting any exposed area such as the face).
  • Use gloves to put the bat in a sealable container.
  • Place the container in a cool, safe place away from human or pet contact or put it into the fridge, which will make the bat go into hibernation. Do not kill the bat.
  • Call your local public health unit (http://www.immunizebc.ca/finder ). The bat will be tested for rabies. If it does not have rabies, vaccination may not be necessary.
  • Dispose of gloves used to transfer the bat

How do I manage dead bats?


  • Do not touch the bat with your bare hands
  • If you find a dead bat in the woods or away from populated areas, just leave it where it is.
  • If you find a dead bat in your yard, or near your home where your children or pets may find it -- and you are sure there has been no human or pet contact -- you should pick it up with a stick and bury it while wearing disposable gloves. Afterwards, dispose of the gloves and the stick, and wash your hands well with soap and water.
  • If you cannot bury the bat, pick it up with a stick while wearing disposable gloves. Put it in a plastic bag. Put this bag in a second plastic bag and seal it tight. Then put it in the garbage (unless prohibited by local by-law, contact your municipality). Afterwards, dispose of the gloves and the stick, and wash your hands well with soap and water.

What do I do if there are bats in my home or a building?


  • Bats play an essential role in BC’s ecosystem. For example, all species of bats found in BC eat insects, which helps control the population size of pest insects.
  • If you know of bats living in a building and would like to learn more about how to safely evict them, see www.bcbats.ca or contact a pest control company.
 

Prevention

What else can I do to prevent rabies?


In BC, the risk of rabies if there has been no contact with bats is exceedingly small. Vaccination against rabies should only be offered if contact with a bat or any other animal with suspect or confirmed rabies has occurred, or if you are working in high-risk rabies situations (e.g. veterinarians, laboratory workers).

There are currently rabies vaccines available for cats, dogs and ferrets. Your pets should be vaccinated, and their immunizations should be kept up to date. Otherwise, your pet could be infected by a rabid animal, and your pet could in turn infect you.

What can I do to prevent rabies while traveling?


If you will be traveling for a month or more to areas where rabies is often found in a number of different animals, consult a travel clinic to be vaccinated against rabies before you go.

If you are possibly exposed to rabies in another country:

  • Rabies is not well controlled in many other parts of the world. If you are bitten by any animal, especially an unprovoked attack, you should get medical advice about rabies prevention, no matter how long ago you were bitten.
  • If you receive rabies vaccination outside Canada, the U.S.A. and Europe, obtain the name of the immune globulin and vaccine provided (if possible, obtain the labels or packaging). Only certain products are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for preventing human rabies. Bring these products or product names to your Canadian doctor or call your local public health unit (http://www.immunizebc.ca/finder ) to ask them for advice once you get home.
  • If you do not have access to WHO-approved immune globulin and vaccine overseas, consider returning to Canada immediately for medical attention.
 

 
Last Updated: August 8, 2014