Provincial officials are dropping rabies vaccine bait around Hamilton by hand and by helicopter this week after tests confirmed the first documented case of raccoon rabies in Ontario in nearly a decade on Friday.

The Ministry of Natural Resources is moving quickly to try to contain the spread of the disease. It began by baiting wild animals by hand in the Stoney Creek area Monday. MNR staff are working within a four-kilometre radius of where rabies was discovered after two dogs got into a fight with a rabid raccoon inside an animal control van.

Officials will also drop aerial baits by helicopter on Wednesday, said Dr. Jessica Hopkins, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health, at a board of health meeting on Monday.

The bait packets, which are about the size of a toonie, contain vaccine to prevent the spread of rabies, Hopkins said.

"This is really all in an effort to make sure that rabies does not get established in wild animals in Hamilton," she said.

'We're breaking new ground here because raccoon rabies had been very successfully contained.'
- Bill Dowd, CEO of Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control

This is the first documented case of rabies in a raccoon in Ontario since 2006, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says. 

The ministry drops vaccine in Niagara every year to prevent the spread of rabies over the U.S. border, Hopkins says. The disease is particularly prevalent in skunks, foxes and bats.

After so many years rabies free, news of a new case came as a "bit of a surprise," said Chris Davies, the Ministry of Natural Resources' manager of wildlife research. "It is very common in the states," Davies said. "But we need to make sure it doesn't spread again."

How did it get here?

So how does a rabid raccoon get to southern Ontario? More than likely, it hitched a ride in a transport truck from the U.S., wildlife control expert Bill Dowd told CBC News. "Raccoons have been known to be great hitchhikers," said Dowd, the CEO of Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control. 

"We're breaking new ground here because raccoon rabies had been very successfully contained," he said.

The two dogs who were exposed to the rabid raccoon in a city animal control van last week have been granted a stay of execution, for now. 

Raccoon Dog Fight Rabies 20151204

Mr. Satan, shown in this handout photo, was one of the two bull mastiffs involved in the fight with a raccoon after being picked up by Hamilton animal services. (Paula Fancey/Canadian Press)

The dogs' lives were spared over the weekend after the city quarantined them Friday as soon as it discovered the raccoon they'd scrapped with tested positive for rabies.

Paula Fancey, who owns the bull mastiffs — named Mr. Satan and Lexus — said she cannot afford to board them in isolation for the recommended three months to ensure they are free of rabies. 

"I still think the city should pay for boarding," Fancey said, adding that she and her daughter received rabies shots over the weekend. "Otherwise I will have to put them down."

Last Wednesday, an animal services officer picked up the dogs after they escaped their yard and placed them in cages in a van with the sick raccoon.

The raccoon, which was picked up in Stoney Creek, was "very vicious and it was a public safety risk," according to city spokeswoman Ann Lamanes.

Dogs in quarantine

In a note to councillors, city staff said the dogs are in "strict quarantine" for the time being.

"Because the dogs were not up-to-date with their rabies vaccines, OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) recommends the animals should be re-vaccinated within seven days of exposure and stay in quarantine for a three-month period," the note to councillors read.

Dowd says residents should be especially careful around any raccoon that is acting strange or aggressive, or doesn't seem afraid of a nearby human. 

If you hear noises in your attic or chimney call a professional, he added, because raccoons are seeking winter den sites right about now, he said.

"If you're hearing any noises, call a professional to get the removed," he said.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

With files from Samantha Craggs and The Canadian Press