Bats are no doubt fascinating animals. They also carry rabies. And I’ll be honest with you. Rabies scares the crap out of me. Most people know that rabies is caused by a virus that is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. Because the virus attacks the nervous system, rabid animals often act aggressively and may bite, thus transmitting the disease. Fortunately vaccination against rabies is available and since the disease has a longish incubation period, there is usually ample time after being bitten by a known or suspected rabid animal to get a series of shots that will protect you (see a recent post here on a possible one-shot rabies vaccine). Thanks to veterinary vaccination, the US is free of rabid dogs, but there are rabid cats, cows and many rabid wildlife, primarily raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats. Bats are mammals but they fly. They can get into your house or tent and can bite you without your realizing it, while you sleep. Most of the rare but tragic human rabies cases in the US in recent years have been from bat bites.
CDC says most bats don’t have rabies, and I believe them. Bats are an important part of a very important part of the ecology of many regions. They are important. I’m not afraid of bats that don’t have rabies, so I don’t have to be afraid of most bats. But I am afraid of bats that do have rabies and unfortunately they don’t carry signs that tell me they are rabies free. So which bats are the riskest?
Rabies can be confirmed only in a laboratory. However, any bat that is active by day, is found in a place where bats are not usually seen (for example, in a room in your home or on the lawn), or is unable to fly, is far more likely than others to be rabid. Such bats are often the most easily approached. Therefore, it is best never to handle any bat. (CDC)
Whenever you are bitten by an animal you should do your best to either capture it or know where it can be observed (e.g., a pet) for at least a few days. If you even might have been exposed to a rabid bat you should try to capture it so lab studies can test it for rabies. But how do you capture a bat? CDC’s bat website has instructions and ways to bat proof a house.
But you don’t always know when you’ve been bitten. Bats have very tiny teeth and their bite marks aren’t always visible. The CDC site has this extremely scary case history:
In February 1995, the aunt of a 4-year-old girl was awakened by the sounds of a bat in the room where the child was sleeping. The child did not wake up until the bat was captured, killed, and discarded. The girl reported no bite, and no evidence of a bite wound was found when she was examined. One month later the child became sick and died of rabies. The dead bat was recovered from the yard and tested–it had rabies.
There is a lesson here, which CDC spells out:
- This child’s infection with rabies was most likely the result of a bat bite. Children sleep heavily and may not awaken from the presence of a small bat. A bat bite can be superficial and not easily noticed.
- The bat was behaving abnormally. Instead of hiding, the bat was making unusual noises and was having difficulty flying. This strange behavior should have led to a strong suspicion of rabies.
- If the bat had been submitted for rabies testing, a positive test would have led to life-saving anti-rabies treatment.
You can find out a great deal more about rabies at the CDC rabies site.
What about Congress? Isn’t there something Congress can do about rabid bats?