5 health risks of contact with Canada’s wildlife

The allure of Canada’s stunning outdoor spaces is understandably irresistible. But for tourists and urbanites who are new to the vast, wonderful wilderness that Canada has on tap, coming into contact with wildlife can be a concern. If you’re not aware of how to react to animals or what might await you in your outdoor adventures, use this handy list of potential risks. Most are rare, but it never hurts to be prepared.


Probably the most well known disease spread by animals (thanks, Old Yeller!), rabies is found most often in bats and skunks. These wild animals can infect people directly—by biting them—or indirectly by turning the family pet rabid. Despite its scary reputation, human rabies is actually incredibly rare in Canada. The goods news is there have been fewerthan half a dozen cases in the last 12 years. The bad news is that once people start showing symptoms (fever, cough, hallucinations, and seizures) the disease is generally fatal. The best way to protect yourself is to get immediately vaccinated if you’re been bitten or scratched by any wild animal, and make sure your pets are immunized.

Lyme disease

Caused by bites from the blacklegged tick, Lyme disease is on the rise in Canada. The government has tracked it since only 2009, but there were 258 reported cases in 2011—a big jump from 2010. Symptoms show up in as few as three days or as long as a month, and they include headaches, fevers, muscle aches, and chills. Many people develop a red rash at the bite site that resembles a bull’s-eye, but not all sufferers show physical evidence, making it hard to identify the source of their illness. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause arthritis, heart palpitations, nervous-system disorders, and even neurological issues. The best defense against infection is to check yourself for ticks, particularly after long periods spent in wooded areas. Ticks have to be attached to your skin for at least 24 hours to transmit the bacteria, so shower after you’ve been outside and carefully remove any ticks you find with tweezers. If you still become infected, you can be cured with a treatment of antibiotics, but you may suffer long-term damage if the disease had a chance to progress.

West Nile virus

Humans become infected through mosquito bites, but West Nile actually originates from the blood of diseased birds. Mosquitos feast on them and then take a nip out of us – spreading the nasty virus in the process. Most people infected with West Nile experience only mild flu like symptoms, but others can suffer through extreme headaches, fever, drowsiness, confusion, and vomiting. In some cases West Nile can cause meningitis (inflammation in the lining of the brain or spinal cord), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain itself), or acute flaccid paralysis (loss of function in the limbs). People with compromised immune systems are the mostsusceptible to serious health effects from West Nile. There about 500 cases of West Nile diagnosed in Canada a year, with the majority occurring in Ontario and Quebec and a few scattered incidents in the prairies. There isn’t a treatment or vaccine for West Nile yet, but doctors will monitor severe cases to prevent further infections.


Humans can contract this disease from lake water contaminated with rodent, beaver, deer, or raccoon urine. Symptoms include fever, chills, headaches, vomiting, severe muscle pain, and swelling of the eyes. Some people may experience liver and kidney bleeding, which can be fatal. Antibiotics within the first 7 to 10 days of infection are the best course of treatment. Leptospirosis in humans is rare in Canada, but to fully protect yourself, cover up any cuts and sores while swimming and try not toswallow any lake water.

Nicknamed “rabbit fever” because hunters contracted the disease while hunting rabbits, tularemia is a bacterial infection that can also be transferred to humans by beavers and muskrats. People can be exposed if an infected animal bites or licks them, if they handle an infected carcass, or if they come into contact with water contaminated by the animal. Tularemia causes ulcers, swollen glands, fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, and pneumonia. There aren’t many cases diagnosed in Canada, but to be safe, don’t handle wild rabbits and stay far away from road kill.

By Jennifer Bragg