Rabies has been described for thousands of years and has been a feared disease for much of human history. Transmission of rabies is almost always accompanied by an animal bite. In Alberta, the animals that most often transmit rabies are bats, skunks, racoons and foxes, although all mammals (including cats and dogs) are capable. All mammals are able to be infected by the rabies virus although some are more resistant than others. While it may take a long time for the rabies virus to incubate, once symptoms being, death can occur within 10 days.
How does one get rabies?
The rabies virus is spread via the salivary glands from a bite of an infected animal — basically any penetration of the skin by teeth. However, contamination of open wounds or mucous membranes can be another route of exposure. Any direct contact with a bat or undocumented contact with a bat (i.e. bat found in a room of a sleeping person) is considered exposure. In fact, most human cases of rabies in the USA are due to bat strains, but many cases have no report of bat contact.
Signs of rabies
Rabies can appear in two forms:
- Dumb rabies
- Depression and trying to hide in isolated places
- Lose their fear and appear unusually friendly
- Wild animals that usually only come out at night may be out during the day
- Paralysis of the face or neck (which causes abnormal facial expressions or drooling) or hind legs
- Furious rabies
- Excitation and aggression
- Periods of excitement that alternate with periods of depression
- Attacking objects or other animals and they may even bite or chew their own limbs
Prevention of rabies
There is no treatment for rabies once clinical signs occur so it is important to take its threat seriously. Rabies prevention includes vaccination and limiting exposure to wildlife. Rabies vaccine is available for both dogs and cats. After the initial vaccine, which is good for one-year, subsequent doses are generally good for three-years.
Testing for rabies
Rabies in animals can only be definitively diagnosed by examining brain tissue and only certain laboratories in Canada are certified to do so. Therefore, it is imperative to make sure your pet’s vaccinations are up to date.
What to do if you come into contact with a wildlife?
Albertans can submit bats that have come in contact with a person, pet or livestock to any veterinary or Fish and Wildlife office for rabies testing.
If animals have had physical contact with a mammalian wildlife, animal owners should follow-up with a veterinarian.
Any person who has had physical contact with a bat should follow-up with a healthcare provider to determine if they need post-exposure treatment.