Frequently Asked Questions About RABIES

dog rabies

Rabies has been spreading through Ontario, with the largest outbreak occuring in the Hamilton area. If you are concerned about an animal acting strange in your neighbourhood, call us toll free at 1-855-393-4295 or email us at

What is rabies?

 Rabies is a virus that can affect all species of mammals, although some or more susceptible to the disease such as raccoon, bats, skunks, fox and stray and non-vaccinated dogs and cats. The virus affects the nervous system of infected mammals, eventually killing it from asphyxiation or heart attack.  Rabies is spread by infected mammals through their saliva, and occasionally by contact with brain tissue and spinal fluid.

Currently there are two active forms of rabies in Ontario; the fox strain and the raccoon strain. Since December 2015, there have been 284 confirmed cases of the raccoon rabies strain and 6 confirmed cases of the fox rabies strain in Ontario (as of Feb 22, 2017, from OMNRF)


What causes rabies?

Exposure to the saliva, brain tissue or spinal fluid of an infected animal can expose you to the disease. Exposure can occur from the following scenarios:

  • Being bitten by an infected animal that breaks the skin
  • Getting saliva from an infected animal on/in and open wound, cut, sore or into the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes.
  • In rare cases (only 11 total in the US), rabies has been transmitted from human to human from organ transplants

An infected animal or human can carry the rabies virus for a long period of time before any symptoms appear, typically between 3 to 8 weeks, but can be as short as 10 days, or well over a year.     


What are the symptoms of rabies in humans?

It is crucial to understand that once the symptoms appear, there is no treatment or cure and rabies is almost always fatal. If you suspect any form of exposure to rabies, please contact your doctor immediately. Symptoms of rabies in humans can include, but are not limited to:

  • numbness, itchiness and irritation around the area of the bite
  • fever, nausea and headache - flulike symptoms
  • agitation, hyperactivity, confusion 
  • muscle spasms, partial paralysis
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing, with an associated fear of gusts of air and drinking water
  • insomnia

What are the symptoms of rabies in cats and dogs?

With the early symptoms cats and dogs will show a change in temperament. Calm pets may appear agitated, aggressive, while more aggressive or outgoing pets may appear withdrawn, timid or lethargic.

As the disease progresses, pets will be easily provoked, will attack easily, and may attack or thrash against random objects. Pets may become disoriented and may suffer seizures.

In the final stages of rabies, cats and dogs will lose muscle control in their throats and mouths, leading to excessive drooling and difficulty breathing/heavy panting. They will stop eating and drinking water. Death occurs at this stage from paralysis of the lungs or heart attack. The time from the first symptoms appearing until death is 3-7 days.

Maintaining rabies vaccinations for your pets is the best prevention, as with other animal affected by rabies, once the symptoms appear, it is too late.

Summary of Symptoms of Rabies in Cats and Dogs:

  • behaviour change including increased aggressiveness, lack of energy or quieter than usual.
  • loss of appetite food and reluctance to drink water.
  • change in mobility/movement – includes lack of movement or loss of balance.
  • hypersensitivity to light and touch.
  • change in barking/meowing behaviour.
  • increased saliva production, drooling.
  • licking and fussing at a wound on its body, likely where the animal was bitten by an infected animal.

What are the symptoms of rabies in Raccoons, Skunks, Fox Bats and Other Wild Animals?

The symptoms of rabies in wild animals are similar to those seen in cats and dogs, and include;

  • unprovoked aggression
  • lethargy (tiredness)
  • partial paralysis
  • staggering
  • drooling or excessive salivation
  • oblivious to noises or scare tactics

If a wild animal such as a raccoon, is out during the day, this does not mean it is rabid, however when combined with other symptoms and strange behaviour, it might be. If you see any animals acting strange it is a good idea to have a professional come and remove the animal. Do not try to trap the animal yourself.

How is rabies transmitted?

Exposure to the saliva, and occasionally brain tissue or spinal fluid of an infected animal will expose you to the disease. Transmission of the rabies virus occurs most often from being bitten by an animal infected with rabies, either before or after the symptoms are showing in the infected animal.  Never assume that because an animal looks fine, that it is not a carrier of the rabies virus.

When rabies has started to take effect in an animal, they can go through a stage of aggression, where biting is more likely to happen, and therefore transmission of the disease is more likely at this stage. However, this does not mean that exposure cannot occur before the symptoms are showing in an infected animal.

What is the treatment for rabies for humans?

Once the signs and symptoms of rabies start to show, there is no treatment and it is almost always fatal. It is important to seek medical treatment IMMEDIATELY after exposure, or suspected exposure. Shots can be administered to protect you and are these are your only defense. Rabies shots for humans are covered by OHIP and are a series of 5 shots delivered to the arm, over a period of 14 days. They are relatively painless and nothing like the days of painful shots into the belly.  If you do not receive the shot after exposure to rabies and you contract rabies, there is no cure or treatment, and it is almost always fatal. A few needles will save your live, and at no cost.

Individuals working with wildlife or animals are often required to have an up to date rabies exposure vaccine. If you are concerned that you in situations where you might be exposed to rabies,  such as working with animals, hunting, farming or trapping,  contact your local health department or Doctor about receiving a vaccination for pre-exposure. 

How many shots do you need for rabies vaccination?

In Ontario, post exposure vaccinations are a series of 5 shots over a period of 14 days, all administered into the arm, with very little pain. These shots are covered by OHIP for Ontario residents. Pre-exposure vaccinations, are not covered by OHIP and may require annual booster shots.

If you have any concern about exposure to rabies, please contact your doctor immediately.  If you suspect a wild animal or stray cat or dog has rabies, stay away from it and call Hawkeye to come and remove the animal immediately.