Until recently, the incidence of rabies in Ontario has been declining, in part due to successful rabies baiting programs by the Ministry of Natural Resources. Because of this, we may have become too complacent about this deadly disease. But as our housing developments have continued to encroach upon wildlife habitats, our family pets have a greater chance of encountering a wild animal. At Blue Cross Animal Hospital, we have seen an increase in the number of calls about contact between pets and wildlife. And we can’t help but wonder how many people do not contact their vet after their pet has an altercation with a wild animal. So let me say this — rabies is a real disease and a real threat! It is fatal to humans and animals alike. It is spread through saliva, so either bites or direct contact with the tissues of the mouth, nose, or eyes of infected animals presents a risk. In North America the most common carriers of the rabies virus are skunks, foxes, raccoons and bats. There are different strains or variants of rabies that have adapted to survival in different host species, also called “reservoir hosts”. In other words, the raccoon strain of rabies has evolved so that a raccoon that has been infected with that strain will survive longer, thus increasing the amount of time that it can infect other animals or people. However, when a non-reservoir animal is bitten by a rabid animal infected by any strain, it will succumb to the disease rapidly, no matter what variant is involved. Skunk, raccoon, and fox rabies are each found in fairly distinct geographic regions of North America, although some overlap occurs, while bat rabies is distributed throughout the Americas.
In Canada, the fox and skunk strains have traditionally been the predominant strains. But in early December of 2015, a raccoon that was infected with the raccoon strain of rabies was identified in Hamilton. Just over a year later, by February 1, 2017, 277 rabid animals had been confirmed as infected with this strain, including skunks, foxes, a cat and a llama. Raccoons and skunks traditionally hibernate in the winter, so the number of diagnosed animals would be expected to decline. In spite of this, the number of infected animals continues to rise, with updated statistics being published every 1-2 weeks. Initially, all the cases were confined to the Hamilton area, but in early March of 2016, the first rabid raccoon was confirmed in the Niagara region and by mid-November a rabid skunk was confirmed with this strain in the Halton region. The map at the top of this blog shows the location of animals that have tested positive as of February 1, 2017, as well as the areas where oral bait dropping is occurring. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Foods, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources are monitoring the situation and publishing updates as they are available. To help quell the tide, in late summer and fall of 2016 the OMNR intensified their oral bait dropping program throughout the areas that are affected, including the KW area.
So, what does this mean for you and your pet? It means that if the raccoon strain of rabies gets established in our area, then there is a much greater chance of your pet being exposed to this disease.
Why? It’s simple statistics. There are not that many skunks and foxes in our urban area, but there are certainly a lot of raccoons! And it doesn’t matter what strain it is, if your pet is infected by a rabid animal, the outcome will be the same – death! An animal with rabies will usually have some sort of behaviour change. There are two basic forms of rabies, the “furious form” and the “dumb form”. An animal with furious rabies will be very aggressive or excited, and will bite or attack other animals or objects. A wild animal with the dumb form of rabies will usually seem to be friendly and may even approach people; often a nocturnal wild animal with rabies may wander around on the street during broad daylight. A pet animal with the dumb form of rabies will usually be depressed. The dumb form of rabies usually progresses to paralysis. The problem with a pet animal that has rabies, especially the dumb form, is that people will approach it and good samaritans will be inclined to try and help it out. For more information about rabies in animals, click here.
How can you protect your pets from this deadly disease that is completely preventable in our area? First of all, make sure your pet gets an annual veterinary checkup, allowing us to ensure that your pet’s vaccination is current, including its protection against rabies. The rabies vaccine is protective against all variants of the virus when used as recommended. However, if a previously vaccinated pet is exposed to a potentially rabid animal, the Department of Public Health usually recommends that a booster vaccine be given within 5 days of exposure. Second of all, do not let your pet roam outdoors unsupervised. This will minimize their risk of contacting wildlife. Third, if your pet is in contact with a wild animal, seek veterinary advice immediately. DO NOT WAIT! Fourth, if you notice any animal, and especially a raccoon or other wild animal, behaving abnormally, call animal control or your local health unit. Finally, if you or one of your family members are scratched or bitten by any suspicious animal (either wild or domesticated), wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek immediate medical help. Remember – regular vaccination of your pet against rabies will help protect your whole family.
Dr. Cheryl Yuill