Rabies baiting is a common and effective way of controlling rabies in some wildlife populations, particularly skunks, raccoons and foxes. It involves dropping edible rabies vaccine, by airplane or by hand, into targeted areas. Millions of rabies baits are used across North America and baiting programs have been cited as a key aspect of wildlife rabies control. In one year, 1.3 million baits were dropped in targeted areas of Southern Ontario alone over a two-month period. A good series of pictures of rabies baiting is available here.
Rabies baits are usually a small rectangular block comprised of something that smells or tastes attractive to the targeted wildlife into which a liquid vaccine has been added. Some use fish meal and fish oil to attract wildlife. Others use combinations of fats, icing sugar, vegetable oil and artificial marshmallow flavour (don’t ask me why – I’m certain there’s a reason but I don’t know if they’ve done taste-testing).
Often, the local public is notified in advance of the drops being made, and it is recommended that kids be closely supervised outdoors for a week or so to ensure they don’t come into contact with the baits. It is also often recommended to keep pets indoors or on leash during the same period. (Pets are much more likely to be exposed to and to eat the vaccine than kids). It’s also recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly if you have contact with a bait.
Rabies baits are quite safe, and these recommendations shouldn’t cause concern. It’s a case of being overly cautious. The baits are safe to touch, but it is still recommended that you don’t touch them (if nothing else, they may make your hands smell pretty bad). Ingestion of a rabies bait by a person or pet is also unlikely to cause a problem. Any adverse affects are more likely to occur due to the non-vaccine component of the bait, particularly because of the typically high fat content. Ingestion of a lot of baits could certainly cause vomiting or diarrhea in a dog, just like ingestion of large amounts of other inappropriate foods.
Some groups recommend that you contact Poison Control if your pet has been exposed to a bait, but I’m not sure what they’d do in such a case. Other groups ask you to report to them that a pet ingested the bait, likely so they can consider exposure of people and pets when determining target areas for the next year. There’s similar variation in recommendations if a person ingests the vaccine. Often it is recommended that public health be notified so they can record it, but it’s very unlikely anything would be done.
On a related note, you cannot use rabies baits as a free way to vaccinate your pet. It might work, but there is no way to know, and if your pet is exposed, it would be considered unvaccinated if it was not properly vaccinated by a veterinarian with an appropriate dog/cat vaccine.