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Do Bats Carry Rabies?



02.22.2007 - Bats do carry rabies, as can most any mammal. Bats are of considerable importance, because they are common rabies vector species in North America. That is, most of the documented cases of rabies transmission in the United States over the past 50 years or so are due to infection by bat. The number of cases is not high - I don't have the exact statistics, but I've read that there's about one death in the U.S. per year due to rabies transmission from bats. This is much higher than from raccoons, skunks, or even dogs.

The most likely reasons for this are that we have taken great precaution in the United States to control the rabies virus, and thus most pets are vaccinated, thus preventing dog infection. Also, people are well aware when they've come into contact with a rabid raccoon, and thus seek treatment. The problem with bat bites is that many go undetected. Despite what you see in the top photo, bats have small teeth, and the bite might be very small and unnoticeable. Of course, any cogent person would recognize a bat in the process of administering a bite, but sometimes a bat will enter a home, often down from an attic roosting spot, and then bite a person, perhaps a child or a sleeping person, who is unaware. This is very rare, but it does happen.

Of course, as is usually the case, most of the rabies infections from bats occur when people attempt to handle or pick up a sick bat, and then they are bitten. The other reason that bats are the most common rabies vector in the U.S. probably has to do with the various strains of the virus. I don't know much about it, but apparently rabies comes in different strains, and humans are more susceptible to certain ones. For example, the most common infecting bat in the United States is the Silver Haired Bat, even though this species is not terribly common compared to other bats. The most common bats that people come into contact with in North America are the Little Brown Myotis, the Big Brown, and in the South, the Brazilian Free-Tailed bat (pictured above, in my gloved hands).

Rabies is a serious illness. Once a person shows any symptoms, that's it. It's fatal. Yes, you may have read about the one known survivor, but I think that girl suffered severe brain damage. Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system. It travels along nerve cells from the bite site to the brain stem, where it incubates and eventually explodes in numbers, inflaming the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord, causing a host of horrible symptoms and death. Don't get rabies.

If you are bitten by a bat, the best thing that you can do is to collect the specimen for testing. Pick it up with heavy gloves or a hot pad or something, and store it in a tupperware container or bag. I guess you could refrigerate it. I'm no expert. You'll want to send it off to a laboratory for testing. I don't know where to tell you to send it. Contact a local health center or center for disease control, and I'm sure that they can direct you on the proper procedure and location. The lab will cut the animal's head off and test it. If it's negative, I guess you'll save yourself the aggravation of post-exposure rabies treatment, which I believe currently consists of a nice shot of immunoglobulin followed by five shots of the vaccine, in the arm. You no longer need 237 shots in the abdomen. If you merely suspect that you might have been bitten by a rabid bat, I suppose you could get treatment, but it'd be a pain in the butt. Arm. Sometimes people go overboard - like I once read a story about how 52 boys at a summer camp had to get post-exposure treatment because some paranoid counselor, having read the local news about rabid bats, saw one flying through the sky at the camp. C'mon. Parents, you don't need to get scared by the hype in a case like this. Better safe than sorry you say? Okay, fine. Why don't YOU just get the shots, because you petted your neighbor's dog last month?

As usual, common sense is the rule. Don't ever handle a sick bat with your bare hands. Let me revise that: don't ever handle a bat. If you've got a colony in your attic, have them removed, not just due to rabies risk, but also risk of mold growth on the droppings, not to mention the odor and noise and wood rot. Don't let your dog nip at a sick bat. If you encounter a legitimate risk of rabies infection from a bat, such as if you know you are bitten, or wake to find a bat in your room, collect the thing and get it tested, because as stated, bats are the most common transmitter of the virus in the United States. That said, rabies is still very rare, and bats are great animals, and infection, like venomous snake bite, is usually due to the most common cause of accidents - people being dumb.

Do it yourself: Visit my How To Get Rid of Bats page for tips and advice.
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