Battling Rabies

Raccoon-rabies gone, but bat strain hangs on…

In a few weeks, planes carrying vaccine baits will head out over Ontario, as the annual battle against rabies in wildlife begins. The program has been a huge success, although bat rabies is still a concern.

In 2012, there were only three cases of terrestrial rabies reported in Ontario, a province that used to be known as “the rabies capital of North America”, according the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). At one time, the annual tally of fox rabies cases alone was close to 1,500. The Ministry’s efforts have been so successful, they have eradicated the raccoon strain of rabies from the province completely.

But looking more closely at cases reported last year highlights the reason our pets must be vaccinated against this deadly disease. Of the three reported cases, one was in a cat, another in a dog north of Kingston. The third animal was a skunk. Both the skunk and cat were infected with fox rabies. The dog had been bitten by a rabid bat. Bats are a reservoir of disease that is difficult to manage. According to the MNR, they rarely pass rabies to other species, but obviously it happens.

Bats eat insects, so health authorities have been unable to develop a vaccine bait they will ingest. Rabies in bats is reported separately from cases in “terrestrial” animals – those that walk rather than fly. Last year in Ontario, 25 rabid bats were identified, similar to the number in 2011. Although nocturnal and shy of people, bats do get into houses. They can bite without leaving marks and should be considered rabid until proven otherwise. Once symptoms begin, rabies from any source is nearly always fatal.

Believed to have existed since 2,600 B.C., rabies is a disease of the central nervous system. It is of most concern in animals that live close to people, such as dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. Given the prevalence of raccoons in urban areas – there are more per square mile inside our cities than out in the country – the eradication of that strain was a major coup for Ontario’s wildlife stewards.

But even if MNR experts come up with a plan to vaccinate Ontario’s bats for rabies, the disease is quite common in jurisdictions on three sides of our province. It will doubtless still be necessary to immunize our pets, so that people are protected as much as possible.

In Ontario, all pet dogs and cats older than three months of age must be appropriately immunized against rabies by a licensed veterinarian. The first rabies vaccine is given as part of the pet’s puppy or kitten series and a booster must be given at one year of age. Follow-up boosters will be due every one to three years depending on the type of vaccine used. Cows, horses and ferrets can also be vaccinated.

If an animal suspected of rabies may have come into contact with a person or pet, immediately wash any wounds, seek medical advice and contact the local public health unit (613-394-4831) or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (613-969-3320). If possible without risking further exposure, confine the suspect animal so it can be captured.

Much more information about rabies is available on the MNR’s website.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Quinte West/Trenton, Ontario
August 2013