Health officials in the Quebec Cree community of Whapmagoostui say they have contained the spread of rabies in the local dog population, but stress the need for continued vigilance and the importance of caring for animals.

Between April 24 and May 5, two dogs were found, one with a confirmed case of rabies, the other with a suspected case. One animal died, the other was euthanized.

"Getting your dogs vaccinated is really important," said Reggie Tomatuk, program officer with the public health department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. "And for the dog owners [to] take care of their dogs, that's also important."

Reggie Tomatuk

Reggie Tomatuk, program officer with the public health department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, stresses the importance of having dogs vaccinated. (CBHSSJB)

Health officials are calling this a "cluster" of rabies and while they say it is under control, they are also asking people to keep an eye on their dogs and watch for signs of infection.

Rabies attacks the central nervous system and eventually makes its way to the brain. The signs of infection in an animal, according to Cree public health, are restlessness, aggressive behavior or abnormal calmness.

In the later stages, symptoms include hypersensitivity to light and touch and eventually paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles, with foaming at the mouth.

Stray dogs a 'chronic problem'

Controlling dog populations is a recurrent problem in many remote communities, where the animals often roam freely in packs.

Dr. Kianoush Dehghani

Dr. Kianoush Dehghani: stray dogs are a chronic problem. (CBHSSJB)

"Stray dogs are a chronic problem in our communities," said Dr. Kianoush Dehghani, who works with Cree Public Health. She adds rabies infection is common among wild animals such as foxes, wolves, skunks and bats in Eeyou Istchee and Nunavik.

Dehghani also says that despite the presence of rabies in the wild animal population, having it show up in the domestic dog population, "doesn't happen everyday."

Free vaccine available, but services at risk

The Québec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) is making a free vaccine available to the community. The Ministry says the first infected dog was likely contagious from the beginning of April.

Cree public health officials say the dog spent most of the time roaming freely in the community, and likely came in contact with many other dogs during its contagious period.

Dehghani says there are no veterinarians and scarce veterinary resources available in the communities of Eeyou Istchee and Nunavik.

In the last few years, MAPAQ has provided certain veterinary services through a program geared to northern communities. Dehghani said that in 2016, all nine communities in Eeyou Istchee participated in the MAPAQ's dog vaccination program, but those services are at risk, because of budget cutbacks.

Get back to the old ways

Since the first case was confirmed on April 27, the local clinic in Whapmagoostui has worked with the Public Health Department to assess anyone who may have been exposed to the rabid dog and offered a vaccination against rabies infection, if need be.

A meeting was held last week between Cree Health, the local Whapmagoostui clinic, MAPAQ and local public security and fire department to discuss better ways to address the dog problem.

For Reggie Tomatuk people need to get back in touch with the old Cree ways of caring for their dogs.

"When I listen to our elders, they said to me 'we never let our dogs loose in the community'," said Tomatuk. "That never happened before. It's not just Whapmagoostui, but it's all over the Cree Nation."

Listen to a Cree language interview with Reggie Tomatuk regarding the rabies incident in Whapmagoostui: