12/04/2015 17:03 EST | Updated 12/04/2016 00:12 EST

Five things to know about rabies

What began as a dog fight between two pet canines and an urban raccoon took on more ominous connotations on Friday. Medical tests revealed that the raccoon has tested positive for rabies, raising potential red flags for people across Ontario. Here are five key things to keep in mind:

How common is rabies among raccoons?

According to a table published by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), raccoon rabies cases across the country have spiked in recent months. There were no reported cases nationwide between 2009 and 2012. Two cases surfaced in 2013 and one in 2014, but this year has seen the number jump to 24. This number does not include the most recent incident in Hamilton.

How easily can it be transmitted?

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, including raccoons. It is most commonly spread when a rabid animal bites a human or other mammal. Wildlife experts say the circumstances through which a raccoon could infect a human are rare, since direct contact between the two is unlikely. Humans also usually know when they have been bitten by a raccoon and are therefore likely to seek the appropriate treatment quickly.

Signs and symptoms?

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks a mammal's central nervous system. Signs in animals vary. Domestic pets may seek isolated hiding places and act depressed, while typically wild animals may lose their fear of humans. Infected animals may also act unusually excited or aggressive and show signs of paralysis, usually in the face, neck or hind legs.

Is it fatal?

The CFIA says the disease can be treated when still in the incubation stage, which can range from two weeks to a few months, but says the virus nearly always results in death once clinical signs start appearing. Human rabies deaths in Canada are rare, but not unheard of. The last reported death took place in 2007 when a 73-year-old central Alberta man died months after contracting rabies from a bat bite. There been three rabies-related deaths since 2000.

Can you get treatment for yourself or your pets?

The best course of action is preventative vaccination for yourself and your pets. If you suspect that you've come into contact with a rabid animal, the CFIA advises washing any wounds with soap and water, removing potentially contaminated clothing and seeking medical advice as soon as possible. The Public Health Agency of Canada also urges prompt post-exposure vaccination for humans and animals that have come into contact with proven or suspected rabies cases.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press