Reminder to avoid handling bats for risk of rabies

In the wake of an increase in calls reporting human and pet contacts with bats, the Washington Department of Health has reminded people that avoiding bats can protect them from rabies. Bats are not aggressive animals and they generally do not intentionally attack humans.

"Rabies exposures occur most often when people handle or bother these animals," said Dr. Mira Leslie, state public health veterinarian. "Any bat that is found on the ground, has been caught by a pet, or is found in a house might have rabies and should be avoided."

During the summer, people and animals are more likely to encounter bats both in their homes and outside. Since April, 10 bats from five Washington counties have been found to have rabies. More than 15 people were exposed to those rabid bats; all have received medical care including rabies vaccine. Dogs and cats are susceptible to rabies; pet owners should be sure that rabies vaccinations for their pets are up-to-date.

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system and is always fatal once symptoms appear. Individuals exposed to a rabid animal must promptly receive rabies vaccines and immune globulin to prevent the disease. The virus can be transmitted to people or animals after a bite from an infected animal or exposure of open wounds or mucous membranes to an infected animal’s saliva.

Most bats don’t have rabies. For example, those that are flying around at dusk feeding on insects are usually healthy; however, those that appear sick, injured, are seen flying during the day, are on or near the ground, or seem to behave abnormally should be avoided. Healthy bats will avoid contact with people.

Bats are an important part of our environment, and as with all wildlife, bats should be respected rather than feared. Bats are found worldwide, and can be found throughout our state in every habitat from towns and cities to parks and rural areas.

Many bats migrate in spring and fall. Bats that are infected with rabies are often found on or near the ground, and they may show unusual behavior such as daytime flight or activity. While bats are migrating, they may rest in unusual places temporarily. The best thing to do is to leave them alone and avoid any situation that could lead to contact with a bat or another wild or stray animal.

Here are some simple tips for rabies prevention.

  • If you are bitten by an animal, wash the wound well, and call your doctor and local health department immediately.
  • Never handle, feed or approach wildlife, including bats. If a wild animal appears to be injured or sick, keep pets and children away.
  • Make sure rabies vaccinations for your pets are up-to-date. Unvaccinated pets can be exposed to rabid bats in houses and outside. Call animal control or a veterinarian if your pet has had contact with a wild animal.
  • Make sure open windows have screens to prevent bats from entering buildings.
  • If you find a bat in the house, close the doors and windows to the room and — wearing leather or other thick gloves — capture the bat in a can or box without touching it. Seal the container and call your local health department. They will help you determine if any people or pets in your home may have been exposed to the bat and can arrange to test the bat for rabies, if needed.
  • Teach children to stay away from bats on the ground and to let an adult know if they see a bat. If you find a bat on the ground, don’t touch it.

More information about rabies (http://www.doh.wa.gov/Topics/rabiesfct.html) is available on the Department of Health Web site.

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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