What is the rabies virus?
Rabies is a viral disease of warm-blooded animals that can be transmitted to humans. It is caused by a virus of the Rhabdoviridae family, which attacks the central nervous system and eventually affects the brain. Rabies is almost always fatal in animals and people once symptoms occur.
How is rabies transmitted between animals and humans?
The virus is transmitted through close contact with the saliva of infected animals, most often by a bite or scratch. It can also be transmitted by licks on broken skin or mucous membranes, such as those in the eyes, nasal cavity or mouth. In very rare cases, person-to-person transmission has occurred when saliva droplets became aerial. Bat bites can inflict small wounds and go unnoticed.
Who is at risk of being infected by rabies?
Bats are the only known wild carrier of rabies in B.C. Like cats and dogs, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, farm animals, and any other mammals are capable of contracting the rabies virus, but are not considered carriers in B.C.
In other provinces like Ontario, raccoons, coyotes, skunks and foxes are wild carriers of rabies. In B.C., however, the only carrier of rabies is bats; no raccoons or skunks in B.C. have ever transmitted rabies.
How common is rabies in bats in B.C.?
It is estimated that one per cent of bats in the wild in B.C. carry rabies. In June 2004, four skunks in Stanley Park in Vancouver tested positive for the rabies virus. However, it was discovered that they all carried the bat strain of rabies; likely they had all been in contact with a rabid bat.
Cases of human rabies infection in Canada
In the past 25 years, five people in Canada have died of rabies infection: one in Quebec (2000), one in Alberta (2007), one in Ontario (2012) and two in British Columbia (2003 and 2019). In the Ontario case, rabies exposure occurred outside the country. These were the first cases of human rabies in Canada since 1985.
The most likely source of infection for both B.C. individuals was unrecognized bat exposure. Without wound cleansing or post-exposure vaccinations, the potential incidence of rabies in exposed humans can be very high.
Does my pet need a rabies vaccine?
Dogs and cats account for fewer than five per cent of all animal rabies cases in Canada. However, rabies presents a serious public health risk, and even indoor pets could come in contact with a bat. Some pets also need the vaccine for travel. Ask your vet whether your pet should be vaccinated.
What if my pet brings a bat home?
If your pet brings home a bat, you should take your pet to a veterinarian. If the bat is available, your vet may send it for rabies testing. Additionally, your vet may vaccinate your pet against rabies and/or ask you to keep your pet in your home for several months to see if they develop signs of rabies.
If any person in your household has touched a bat with bare skin, seek medical attention from a doctor or local public health unit immediately.
What will happen to the bat?
The bat may be euthanized and sent for testing. As of April 1, 2014, CFIA veterinary inspectors are no longer involved in species collection activities. However, the CFIA continues to perform and cover the cost for rabies laboratory testing involving domestic and wild animals and humans. This is vital as once the symptoms of rabies (flu-like including fever, headache and fatigue, progressing to gastrointestinal and central nervous system problems) start to appear, there is no treatment and the disease is almost always fatal. However, wound cleansing and immunizations, done as soon as possible after suspected contact with an animal, can prevent the onset of rabies in virtually 100 per cent of exposures.
What to do if there has been contact with a bat
If treatment is given promptly after being exposed to (any bare skin contact) or bitten by a bat, the illness may be prevented by taking the following actions:
- Immediately wash the wound or exposed surface with soap and water for 10 minutes and cover the area with a clean bandage.
- Remove any clothing that may have been contaminated.
- Immediately call your doctor and local health authority for advice.
Please contact your veterinarian to have your pet vaccinated and discuss whether a period of isolation/observation is required for your pet. If the bat is available, your veterinarian may send it for rabies testing.
Found an injured bat?
No matter how injured, a bat should never be touched with bare hands. Please refrain from nudging or picking the bat up.
Injured bats can be rehabilitated by professionals able to take the necessary precautions against rabies transmission. Call the BC SPCA’s provincial call centre at 1-855-622-7722 for advice on safely containing bats and finding a wildlife rehabilitator.