Rabies in Ontario
Table of Contents
Rabies Information for the Public
Rabies is caused by a virus that can infect any mammal, including humans. Birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish do not get rabies. In infected mammals, the virus is found in saliva and can be spread through three main ways:
The animals that most often transmit rabies in Ontario are bats, foxes, skunks and raccoons. Once signs of rabies appear, in any animal, the disease is virtually always fatal. A series of vaccinations and treatment with rabies antibodies can prevent infection in humans in most cases if administered soon after exposure.
Rabies response and prevention in Ontario is a joint effort involving members of the public, Public Health, veterinarians, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MOHLTC), the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
Signs of rabies in animals are generally seen in one of two forms: dumb rabies or furious rabies.
Dumb (paralytic) rabies
Rabies is still a federally reportable disease in Canada. That means that human and animal health professionals must report suspected cases to the appropriate authorities. If you think you, or someone you know, may have been exposed to rabies (including bites from domestic or wild animals) you should contact your doctor or local public health unit. Animal owners should report any potential exposure of their animals to their veterinarian, and OMAFRA can provide additional assistance to veterinarians in these cases as needed (particularly facilitating testing).
If you are bitten by an animal or if infectious material (such as saliva) from an animal gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin, wash the area immediately and thoroughly with lots of soap and water. Washing immediately can greatly reduce the risk of infection.
Contact your doctor or your local public health unit immediately, as they can help determine your risk of exposure to rabies. If the risk is significant, rabies antibodies can be administered followed by a series of rabies vaccinations over 2 weeks. This treatment is very effective for preventing rabies in people if done promptly.
If your animal has direct contact with wildlife (including bats), or another domestic animal with signs of rabies, avoid touching your pet with bare hands if it may have wet saliva from the other animal on its body. Contact your veterinarian for advice as soon as possible following the incident. Your veterinarian will ask you some questions and perform a risk assessment to determine the appropriate action.
A general overview of rabies vaccine requirements is provided below. Contact your veterinarian for information on vaccine recommendations for your own animals.
Under the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act, Regulation 567, pet owners are legally required to keep dogs and cats over three months old vaccinated for rabies in 31 of the 36 Public Health Units in the province (i.e. all but the 5 northern-most units). Vaccination not only protects your pet from infection with rabies, but also helps protect you and your family if your pet is exposed to the virus by contact with a wild animal.
Contact your veterinarian for information on when and how often to vaccinate your pets. The first booster vaccine for rabies is always due 12 months after the animal's initial vaccine (this is called the "primary series"), but after that a rabies vaccine ("booster shot") is only needed every one to three years, depending on the vaccine used.
Under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, Regulation 567, livestock owners are legally required to have horses, cattle and sheep vaccinated for rabies in certain public health units in Ontario, if the animals have contact with anyone other than their regular caretakers (e.g. horses that go to competitions, livestock that go to fairs). Consult your veterinarian for more information about rabies vaccination requirements in your specific area.
Since the 1990s, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) has run a very successful wildlife rabies vaccination campaign in Southern Ontario. Raccoons, foxes and skunks are vaccinated using special oral vaccine baits that are scattered on the ground for the animals to eat. The baits are distributed in areas where there is a higher risk for rabies in terrestrial wildlife (i.e. animals other than bats).
There is currently one type of vaccine bait, the Ultra-lite, that is used in Ontario for both fox and raccoon rabies control. Exposure to the bait is not harmful to people or pets; however, in the unlikely event that people or pets come in contact with the vaccine contained in the bait, contacting a doctor or veterinarian as a precaution is recommended.
Because all species of bat found in Ontario are insectivorous (i.e. they only eat insects), they cannot be vaccinated with oral baits in the same way. There is currently no effective way to vaccinate bats in Ontario.
Rabies vaccine (pre-exposure) is given to people at high risk of being exposed to rabies to help protect them from infection (e.g. veterinarians, animal control officers, laboratory workers). Contact your physician if you believe you should receive pre-exposure vaccination against rabies.
In Canada, testing for rabies is only performed at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency rabies laboratories in Ottawa, Ontario and Lethbridge, Alberta. Public health units will arrange for testing when a person is at risk. If a domestic animal is at risk, a veterinarian can arrange for rabies testing, with the assistance of OMAFRA. Generally speaking, testing is only performed if there is a person or a domestic animal that was exposed to the offending animal, in order to rule out the need for post-exposure treatment or monitoring.
The steps taken after a person or domestic animal has been potentially exposed to rabies depend on the results of a risk assessment performed by a health care or animal health professional.
If a person is potentially exposed to rabies, the local public health unit will make recommendations on whether post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is required. If possible, the offending animal will be tested for rabies to rule out the need for PEP. However, if testing is not possible, or if testing confirms the animal had rabies, PEP may be recommended depending on the level of exposure. PEP consists of a series of rabies vaccines given on days 0, 3, 7 and 14 following the exposure, as well as a dose of rabies antibodies on day 0. There is a limited supply of PEP available, and the injections are expensive (the cost is covered by public health in cases of exposure), so PEP is only given when necessary after a complete risk assessment.
When a domestic animal is potentially exposed to rabies, your veterinarian can provide recommendations for post-exposure management. A rabies booster vaccine is recommended any time an animal has potentially been exposed, especially if the animal's vaccination status was not up-to-date. If possible, testing of the offending animal will be performed to rule out the need for post-exposure vaccination or monitoring. However, if testing is not possible, or if testing confirms the offending animal had rabies, then an observation or confinement period may be recommended. Observation and confinement periods range from 45 days to 6 months depending on the at-risk animal's rabies vaccination status. Animals that are out-of-date on their rabies vaccinations are considered higher risk and require longer confinement periods. Whenever possible, observation and confinement periods are carried out in the owner's home, if the requirements for restricting contact with the animal can be met.
The content and links below provide rabies response information for veterinarians, including details of risk assessment and sample submission procedures. Members of the public should always contact their veterinarian first if their animal is acting strangely or if there is any concern that the animal may have been exposed to rabies.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has created a Rabies Response Training Module for private veterinarians. The 35-minute training module reviews rabies risk assessment and post-exposure management of domestic animals, and provides basic information on procedures for sample collection and submission.
Veterinarians who have completed the training module and an online evaluation will receive a certificate of completion and a "rabies response kit" for their practice, including detailed written instructions and reusable forms. The training and kit will help to streamline risk assessments and sample submission for domestic animal exposures.
To receive the Rabies Response Training Module, email firstname.lastname@example.org with "training module" in the subject and your name and clinic name in the body1.
Human at risk
Domestic animal at risk (no human exposure)
Neurological domestic animal suspected of having rabies
Abnormal wildlife with no domestic animal or human exposure
Fights between domestic animals (e.g. dog vs. dog)
The first step following a potential rabies exposure, beyond dealing with the animal's immediate medical needs, is to perform a complete risk assessment. If the assessment indicates a significant risk of exposure, then options for testing and/or post exposure management need to be considered.
A basic risk assessment includes 4 primary elements: Category of exposure, offending animal species, local rabies epidemiology, and animal behavior (which needs to be assessed within the circumstances of the incident). Note that the vaccination status of the at-risk animal is not considered at this point - the initial assessment is for the risk of exposure to rabies, whereas vaccination status of the at-risk animal affects the risk of developing rabies. Vaccination status is one of the critical elements in determining post-exposure management of an exposed animal.
Click here for a rabies risk assessment flow-chart to help guide you through the process.1 For a printable version (pdf), please email email@example.com.
1. Category of Exposure
The World Health Organization defines 3 categories of exposure based on the potential risk of rabies virus transmission:
2. Offending animal species
If the offending animal is a rabies reservoir species in Ontario (bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox), the exposure is considered higher risk. Other wildlife species (e.g. coyotes, groundhogs, muskrats, beavers, possums, squirrels, rats, mice, chipmunks, rabbits), as well as pets, are of significantly less concern UNLESS the animal is displaying neurologic signs.
3. Local rabies epidemiology
More recent cases of rabies in the area increase the risk of exposure of other animals. Because there are different circulating strains, certain reservoir species in some areas are considered higher risk than in others. View a table of recent rabies cases by county and animal type here.
4. Offending animal behavior and circumstances of the event
Abnormal behaviour increases the likelihood that the offending animal may have clinical rabies and therefore the risk that it could transmit the virus. However, it is important to evaluate the animal's behaviour in the context of the incident. Nocturnal animals are not normally seen during the day, but if disturbed or driven to search for food due to harsh seasonal conditions or a severe winter, they may venture out during daylight hours. Similarly, animals that hibernate such as skunks and bats should not be seen during the winter, but they will come out if disturbed (e.g. bats in the attic of old houses disturbed by renovations). Also consider normal territorial behaviour, defense of young, desensitization of wildlife to humans (e.g. raccoons that appear overly "friendly" may have become accustomed to being fed by people in some urban areas). There could also be other potential causes for abnormal behaviour, such as Canine Distemper (which can affect raccoons, foxes and skunks) or a severe mange infestation.
Inclusion of rabies on the differential diagnosis list for an animal with clinical neurological disease requires sound professional judgment. Factors to consider include the following:
Rabies testing is performed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at labs in Ottawa, Ontario and Lethbridge, Alberta.
The required sample depends on the animal species being tested:
The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MOHLTC) has entered into a contract with the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians to have registered veterinary technicians (RVTs) collect and submit samples on behalf of public health units under the new OAVT Rabies Response Program (RRP). At this time, the program is only used by public health for submitting samples in cases of potential human exposure to rabies.
For cases in which potential domestic animal exposure has occurred, but no human exposure, samples should be collected and shipped by local veterinary or animal control personnel.
In cases where other diagnostic tests or a full post-mortem on a domestic animal are requested, and the animal is sent to the local diagnostic laboratory (i.e. Animal Health Laboratory), the sample for rabies testing can be sent by the local laboratory to the CFIA lab. In these cases there is no additional expense to the client for sample collection or submission for rabies testing, but transportation to the diagnostic laboratory, post mortem fees, disposal fees and other diagnostic tests are at the expense of the animal owner.
Detailed sample collection and submission instructions and videos are available by clicking here, or by contacting OMAFRA through the Agricultural Information Contact Centre (1-877-424-1300) or firstname.lastname@example.org
If the offending animal is not available for testing or if testing confirms rabies infection, then post-exposure management options need to be considered. The recommendations provided by OMAFRA are based on previous recommendations used by the CFIA, and currently available scientific evidence. The management recommendations can be enforced under the Ontario Animal Health Act if they are not adhered to voluntarily.
The length of the post-exposure management period depends on the vaccine status of the at-risk animal at the time of exposure, and ranges from 45 days to 6 months. Details on the management recommendations can be found below.
Table 2: Recommended post-exposure management of dogs and cats potentially exposed to rabies, based on vaccination status
General requirements for Observation and Precautionary Confinement Periods
Precautionary Confinement Period (PCP)
Click here for an example of the recommendations that should be provided to an animal's caretaker for a precautionary confinement period1. For a printable version (pdf), please email email@example.com.
Post-exposure management of livestock (cattle, horses, small ruminants) does not depend on the at-risk animal's vaccination status, but rather on the origin of the offending animal.
Issues such as use of working animals, use of animal products such as milk, and shipping of animals to slaughter (including cull animals) during the PCP require careful consideration. These are generally evaluated on a case-by-case basis based on consultation between the attending or herd veterinarian and OMAFRA staff. Contact OMAFRA's Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300 to speak to an OMAFRA veterinarian about any such case.
Any domestic animal that bites a person and is reported to the local public health unit is placed under a 10-day (dogs and cats) or 14-day (most other domestic animals) observation period. If the animal remains clinically normal at the end of this period, then the risk that it could have been shedding rabies virus in its saliva when the bite occurred is negligible, and the victim of the bite therefore does not require post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies. These short observation periods are therefore for the benefit of the human victim. Domestic animals must not be euthanized during a public health observation period, other than for humane reasons. If the animal dies within this time period, the local public health unit must be informed so that rabies testing can be performed. Animals are also not to be vaccinated during a public health observation period. However, the incubation period for rabies in dogs and cats can be up to 6 months; therefore if a pet is the victim of a bite from a wild animal (for example), the recommended confinement period is considerably longer.
If a client reports a potential rabies exposure of a domestic animal, a complete physical exam and booster rabies vaccination are recommended. Vaccinating an animal post-exposure is based on the same principle as post-exposure prophylaxis vaccination in people, whereby boosting immunity before the virus spreads from the local site of inoculation can help prevent it from reaching the central nervous system. The only time an animal cannot be vaccinated for rabies (other than for a medical contraindication) is when it is under a 10-day public health observation period for biting a person (see above.)
1 Cette publication hautement spécialisée n'est disponible qu'en anglais conformément au Règlement 671/92, selon lequel il n'est pas obligatoire de la traduire en vertu de la Loi sur les services en français. Pour obtenir des renseignements en français, veuillez communiquer avec le ministère de l'agriculture, de l'alimentation et des affaires rurales au 1-877-424-1300.
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