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Rabies in animals

Incubation period

The incubation period, that is, the time between the introduction into the body of the virus and the onset of symptoms, is highly variable in animals, ranging from two weeks to several months. Incubation depends, in particular, on the seriousness and size of the wound and the bite’s distance from the brain. For example, bites to the head and neck and multiple, severe bites result in shorter incubation periods.

It should be noted that animals infected with rabies can transmit the virus through their saliva up to 10 days prior to the appearance of rabies symptoms. In species such as bats, the incubation period may even exceed 10 days. Accordingly, even a seemingly healthy animal can transmit rabies.

Animals at risk

Wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes constitute the main reservoir of the rabies virus in North America. Domestic animals such as dogs, cats and cattle are accidental hosts. Even so, they constitute an intermediary capable of infecting humans.

All mammals are liable to contract rabies and all species affected by rabies will display signs that reflect an attack on the nervous system. Regardless of the species, the most characteristic symptoms are a change of behaviour and paralysis.

Different forms of rabies

There are two forms of rabies, furious rabies and paralytic or dumb rabies. The symptoms described here are characteristic of the different forms but a rabid animal will not necessarily display all of the symptoms.

Furious rabies

  • The animal is extremely excitable and aggressive.
  • It attacks objects, other animals or even its own limbs.
  • Extreme furious rabies usually alternates with periods of depression.

Paralytic or dumb rabies

  • The animal can become depressed and withdraw to an isolated spot.
  • It can cease to be afraid of humans.
  • A normally nocturnal animal can also become active during the day.
  • Symptoms of paralysis: paralysis of the head and neck can produce an abnormal facial expression, excessive salivation, sagging of the head and jaw or the issuing of strange sounds. Paralysis of the body usually begins with the hind legs and spreads to the rest of the body.

Signs specific to species

The symptoms described above are common to all species. However, more specific signs can be observed in certain domestic animal species during infection by the rabies virus.


Cattle rarely present the furious form but when it occurs, they can attack humans. A characteristic sign of rabies in cattle is abnormal mooing that can be continuous or intermittent and endure until the animal’s death. Milk production plunges abruptly in dairy cattle infected with the rabies virus.


Horses can display distress and agitation. These signs accompanied by rolling can suggest that the animal is suffering from colic. Infected horses can display aggressiveness and engage in self-mutilation.


Rabid pigs make rapid chewing movements, are uncoordinated and shake their heads repeatedly.


Sheep infected by the rabies virus engage in hoarse bleating, tend to lick objects and become combative.


No treatment is available for wild or domestic animals that have been exposed to the rabies virus and that have developed symptoms. Death usually occurs within 10 days of the onset of clinical signs.


  • The Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec reminds the owners of cats and dogs that are allowed outdoors of the importance of having the animals vaccinated against rabies. Vaccination adequately protects the animals and reduces the risk of transmission of rabies from domestic pets to humans.
  • Vaccine baits are use to vaccinate certain wild animals but the baits are never intended for domestic animals. It is advisable to talk to your veterinarian to learn about and abide by the recommendations in force to effectively protect domestic animals.
  • The owners of production animals must consult their veterinarian to assess the relevance of vaccination against rabies.
  • Do not allow domestic animals to wander and prevent access by wild animals to places where domestic animals are kept.

To obtain additional information, you can also consult the website of the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ). (in French only)

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