How to spot rabies in your pets and wildlife

Angry racoon

This past year, more than 120 animals in the Hamilton area—including raccoons and skunks—were infected with rabies, marking Ontario’s first outbreak in more than a decade. But while the virus originated in bats, it has the ability to infect any mammal, including domestic pets and humans.

In August, Dr. Isabel Hetram had a firsthand experience with the disease, when the Caledonia veterinary clinic where she works had to euthanize a rabid pet cat. Unfortunately, the cat had already bitten and infected a human, who is now undergoing treatment.

“Rabies is one of the few viruses that can cross from one species to another,” explains Hetram. “The danger is that once infected, the virus almost always kills an unvaccinated host.”

But while deadly, rabies is also a totally preventable disease. Here’s how to identify rabies in wildlife or your pets—and how to stop it from spreading.

How is rabies transmitted?

Any mammal—including dogs, cats, and humans—can contract rabies when they are bitten by a rabid animal, or gets saliva, brain, or spinal tissue from an infected animal in an open cut or mucous membrane. And, as Ontario Veterinary Medical Association spokesperson, Melissa Carlaw notes, the virus lives on even after the host is dead. “Even a frozen carcass can contain live rabies virus,” she says.

Typically, rabies is found in wild animals including raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. When it presents in domestic animals, it’s usually because they’ve interacted with a wild rabid animal. (Hetram notes that the cat her clinic recently euthanized was an outdoor cat with a raccoon strain of the virus.)

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Classic symptoms include drooling, aggression, and unusual behaviour. Examples of behavioural changes could be when friendly pets suddenly becoming timid or anxious, display aggressive behaviour, and could progress to the animal becoming semi-paralyzed or disorientated, or having seizures.

Symptoms in wild animals could be seeing nocturnal animals during the daytime, seeing animals that appear disoriented or unhealthy, or encountering an animal who is not afraid of humans and cannot be easily scared off.

“It is very important to stay away from wildlife that is acting in any way abnormally,” says Hetram. However, not all rabid animals will exhibit these symptoms—and not all animals exhibiting these symptoms are rabid; they may also be suffering from distemper.

What should I do if I suspect an animal is infected?

If you suspect your pet has been infected, take them to a veterinarian immediately. Vaccines administered shortly after contact may help to protect your pet. “The vaccine stimulates the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies to the virus, which hopefully eliminate the virus before it has a chance to cause disease,” explains Hetram.

To report a rabid animal in the wild, call your municipal animal control. In Ontario, contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) Rabies Information Line at 1-888-574-6656.

What can I do to protect my pet?

Vaccination is key in stopping the spread of rabies. Unfortunately, according to a survey conducted by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, 19 percent of pet owners have never visited a veterinarian, which means that at least 19 percent of pets—and potentially more—are likely not vaccinated.

“We are hoping to spread awareness and encourage everybody to vaccinate their animals, even if they are indoor cats,” says Hetram, noting that wild animals such as bats can make their way into homes. She also suggests helping to vaccinate stray cats in your neighbourhood.“The more animals we can vaccinate, the better we can contain and control this new raccoon rabies epidemic.”