Bats and humans can peacefully coexist. Most bats do not carry rabies, as confirmed by scientists, physicians, and health officials. We need bats more than we might realize:
- They are responsible for biodiversity because bats, particularly ones that migrate, disperse plant seeds as they fly over various regions;
- They help keep insect populations, especially mosquitos and flies, in check;
- They also provide valuable sources of income because they serve as a tourist attraction; and
- They contribute to farming and other industries that use their guano (or droppings) to make various products such as fertilizer.
Bat populations are in severe decline, and they need our help. They are affected by development that leads to encroachment and destruction of their habitats. The increasing use of wind turbines is killing bats in record numbers. Recently, the dreaded White Nose Syndrome (a fungus brought here from outside the country) has killed entire colonies of bats who do not have an immunity to the disease. Also, just like birds, bats die from impact with building glass because the smooth, reflective surfaces confuse their echolocation.
In my attempts to educate people about the importance of bats and how we should actively work to protect them, several concerned friends have discussed their concerns with me about rabies. Furthermore, the Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a press release, warning of a recent increase in the number of bats that have tested positive for rabies. I understand and appreciate people’s concern, and I have compiled some information and research to help others to understand how rabies is transmitted and how likely a person is to be infected by rabies.
Please read my disclaimer at the bottom before proceeding to read the rest of this entry.
Animals that carry rabies: All mammals can develop rabies, but some species are considered “vectors” or reservoirs for the disease such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, and coyotes. The Illinois Department of Public Health also states that rabies has been found in deer and in large rodents like woodchucks. Cats, dogs, and livestock can get rabies, too, if they are not vaccinated. Some animals like chipmunks, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, rabbits, rats, and squirrels rarely get rabies. Birds, fish, insects, lizards, snakes, and turtles are not mammals and therefore never get rabies.
How the rabies virus works: Rabies is usually transmitted via the virus-infected saliva of an animal carrying the virus. This is very important because the saliva is only infected after what can be weeks or months of incubation. The CDC tells us that while the virus is incubating, a bite by an animal with the virus does not carry a high risk of transmitting rabies because the virus has not yet made it to the saliva.
The virus moves through the animal’s body to the brain where it becomes active and replicates itself, causing inflammation. Once the brain is inflamed, the virus moves to the salivary glands and the saliva. It is usually at this point that rabies can be transmitted by a bite. An animal with active, transmittable rabies usually manifests signs that are obvious to even the layperson. It is a common misconception that an animal infected with rabies will foam at the mouth! Rather, disorientation, lack of coordination, and staggering or other difficulty moving are signs of rabies. A bat that is aggressive towards people, active during the day (when not startled awake, that is), or flopping around on the ground may be exhibiting signs of rabies, and you should take precautions.
Transmission is also possible via other routes such as contamination of mucous membranes, but such cases have rarely been documented.
Bats and human contact: Bats, like most wildlife, normally avoid humans. It is likely that any bats in your home have entered accidentally and are young and inexperienced with finding a way out of a home. However, you should always exercise caution, and any bat that has landed on a person should be carefully captured and tested, and the person should seek a physician’s advice regardless of whether the bat is exhibiting symptoms. The CDC tells us that about six percent of bats submitted for testing do test positive for rabies, but they do emphasize that most bats to do not have rabies. Remember that the bats submitted for testing are ones that have somehow come into contact with humans or displayed unusual behavior and, again, only six percent of those “worrisome” bats actually have rabies.
How to capture a bat: The CDC offers recommendations about how to capture a bat. Find a small container like a box or a large can, and a piece of cardboard large enough to cover the opening in the container. Punch small air holes in the cardboard. Then, put on thick leather work gloves to protect your hands against bites.
When the bat lands, approach it slowly and place the container over it. Slide the cardboard under the container to trap the bat inside. The action is quite similar to how you might capture and release a spider that has entered your home. Remember, a sick bat may be likely to allow this capture to happen quite easily due to disorientation and lack of muscle control.
If you are certain the bat has not come into contact with humans or pets, you may release it away from people and pets. If the bat has come into contact with humans or pets, you should secure the box or can to the cardboard and keep the bat for testing, notifying your local health department or seeking the advice of a physician. Do not kill the bat or cause any trauma to the head of the animal.
Rabies exposure: If you believe you have been exposed to rabies, you should wash the site of exposure with soap and water. This is considered one of the best ways to prevent the transmission of rabies at a bite site. Interestingly, according again to the CDC, rabies is considered a disease of medical urgency and not an emergency. However, you should never delay your decision to seek treatment.
Treatment for rabies exposure: Your doctor and possibly the health department will begin the vaccination process, if they determine it is necessary. This process consists of multiple shots at specific intervals and is administered through injections in the arm the same way a flu inoculation is administered. The new way of vaccination is much better than the old way. I was bitten by a raccoon as a kid and required multiple shots in my stomach with a huge needle. Things have improved greatly!
Statistics about rabies transmission: Because we regularly vaccinate domestic animals, human rabies is extremely rare in developed countries. Canine rabies declined from 47 percent in 1955 to less than two percent by 1994. As domestic animal transmission sharply declined, the number of cases caused by wildlife remained low but has attracted far more public health attention despite its continued rarity. In the rest of the world, the most common vector for rabies is dogs, mostly because of lack of access to vaccination.
Rabies vaccines and profit: It may be that an interest in profit has cultivated a fear of bats. In 2018, treatment for post-exposure treatment of rabies in the United States can be $14,000 or more. However, in the United Kingdom, the treatments costs about $1,626. As early as 1989, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization announced that a new equine rabies vaccine was a safe and affordable alternative to the human rabies vaccine. This vaccine remains unavailable in America but is used elsewhere in the world with success.
In addition, many bat experts believe that the pesticide industry carries an interest in exaggerating the risk of rabies transmissions by bats. Bats are responsible for consuming thousands of mosquitos, insects that require chemical control as bat populations have decreased sharply. As the number of bats decreases, the need for chemical control increases, meaning that this industry stands to profit off of the declining number of bats in the United States.
Bats and coexistence with humans: Bats do provide a great service to people, eating thousands of mosquitos and attracting tourists. In Austin, Texas, careful collaboration between conservationists and public health officials has led to a thriving tourist attraction where visitors can observe 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats living in the center of the city. Over the past thirty-five years of this collaboration, not a single person has been attacked or contracted any disease from these bats.
Experts like Bruce Patterson of The Field Museum and Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, have worked with millions of bats in caves and share that the public’s fear of bats is overblown. However, like all experts, they advocate keeping a healthy distance from bats and other wildlife.
I urge you to look at these sites for more information about these amazing creatures:
Again, I have presented the above information to allow you to be prepared if you should encounter a bat. If you understand the rarity of rabies and also how to deal with a bat that may pose a risk to humans or pets, you are less likely to panic and more likely to deal with the situation properly. Bats need our help, not our panic!
DISCLAIMER: This information is provided to readers as a compilation and distillation of information available to the public on rabies transmission and bats. I am not an expert on bats, rabies, or transmission of rabies and urge you to seek the advice of a medical professional if you have been or believe you have been exposed to an animal that could potentially carry the rabies virus.