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What is the rabies virus and how is it transferred between animals and humans?

Rabies is a viral disease of warm-blooded animals that can be transmitted to humans. It is caused by a virus of the Rhabdoviridae family, which attacks the central nervous system and eventually affects the brain. Rabies is almost always fatal in animals and people once symptoms occur. The virus is transmitted through close contact with the saliva of infected animals, most often by a bite or scratch or by licks on broken skin or mucous membranes, such as those in the eyes, nasal cavity or mouth. In very rare cases, person-to-person transmission has occurred when saliva droplets became aerial.

In 2000 and 2003, two people in Canada died of rabies infection, one in Quebec (2000) and one in British Columbia (2003). These were the first cases of human rabies in Canada since 1985. The most likely sources of infection for both individuals were unrecognized bat exposures. Bat bites can inflict small wounds and go unnoticed, and without wound cleansing or post-exposure vaccinations the potential incidence of rabies can be very high.

The rabies virus can infect any mammal. In North America, it occurs mainly in foxes, skunks, bats, and raccoons and can spread to domestic livestock and pets. In B.C., however, the only carrier of rabies is bats – no raccoons or skunks in B.C. have ever transmitted rabies. It is estimated that 1 per cent of bats in the wild in B.C. carry rabies. In June 2004, four skunks in Stanley Park in Vancouver tested positive for the rabies virus; however, it was discovered that they all carried the bat strain of rabies – likely they had all been in contact with a rabid bat.

What should you do if you suspect rabies?

Dogs and cats account for less than 5 per cent of all animal rabies cases in Canada. However, you should still consult your veterinarian about the rabies vaccine for your pets in case they come into contact with a bat.  

If your pet brings home a bat you should take your pet to a veterinarian.  If the bat is available your vet may send it for rabies testing.  Additionally, your vet may vaccinate your pet against rabies and/or ask you to keep your pet in your home for several months to see if it develops signs of rabies. If any person in your household has touched a bat with bare skin, seek medical attention from a doctor or local public health unit.

The bat may be euthanized and sent for testing. As of April 1, 2014, CFIA veterinary inspectors are no longer involved in species collection activities. However, CFIA continues to perform and cover the cost for rabies laboratory testing involving domestic and wild animals and humans. This is vital as once the symptoms of rabies (flu-like including fever, headache, fatigue, progressing to GI and CNS problems) start to appear, there is no treatment and the disease is almost always fatal. However, wound cleansing and immunizations, done as soon as possible after suspected contact with an animal, can prevent the onset of rabies in virtually 100 per cent of exposures.

Bat-to-person contact?

If treatment is given promptly after being exposed to (any bare skin contact) or bitten by a bat, the illness may be prevented by taking the following actions:

  • Immediately wash the wound or exposed surface with soap and water for 10 minutes and cover the area with a clean bandage.

  • Remove any clothing that may have been contaminated.

  • Immediately call your doctor and local health authority for advice.

Bat-to-pet contact?

Please contact your veterinarian to have your pet vaccinated and discuss if the bat should be tested or if a period of isolation/observation is required for your pet.

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