Bats, Rabies, & Wildlife Emergencies

By Laura Chamberlain
September/October 2015

     Q. Which mammal species accounts for one fifth of the Earth’s mammal population?
     Q. Which is the world’s only flying mammal?

     Q. Which mammal can eat more than 600 mosquitoes in one hour?

     Q. Which mammal plays an important role in the life cycle of plants by pollinating them?

     Q. Unless you are camped at the Arctic, Antarctic or an isolated Oceanic island, which mammal will be somewhere near your campsite?

    Q. Which mammal’s bite can be fatal, but is so subtle you may not even know you were bitten?

     A. BATS!

     Q. How are we humans in North America similar to bats?

     A. We keep the same schedule. When they’re outside, we’re outside.

     Most of us hibernate during the colder months of January and February, venture out a bit more in March and April, become full active in May, June, July and August, slow up, staying indoors a bit more in September and October, then hibernate again in November and DecembWhile bats are important for the ecosystem, they do bring with them one shortcoming; they can carry the rabies virus. Watching bats flit overhead, dipping and diving after insects, is a delightful part of the outdoor experience. When they stay in their space and you stay in yours, bats are great fun. While you may be curious about them, they are not at all curious about you. In fact, they would rather avoid you altogether. That is normal bat behavior. The problem comes when things are not, the same way bats do.     

     More than 90 percent of reported rabies cases in the United States are discovered in wild animals. Only mammals can carry the rabies disease with statistics showing raccoons as the most common carrier. As well, the virus is often found in foxes, bats, skunks, coyotes, wolves, weasels, badgers, and mountain lions. Why, then, do doctors have such big concerns about bats? Because a person knows when they have been bitten by an animal such as a wolf or a fox, but not so with bats. Bat bites are so minor people usually ignore them, thinking there is not enough damage to seek medical treatment, and bat teeth are so tiny it is difficult to know for sure if you have actually been bitten. It is a fatal error to downplay contact with a bat, or to wait and see if symptoms of rabies begin to develop. Once the symptoms of rabies present, it is too late, there is no chance for survival.

     People can’t get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, urine, or touching their fur. The virus is transmitted through saliva or brain/nervous system tissue. You can’t tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it. Rabies can only be confirmed by having the animal tested in a laboratory, but certain behaviors are considered suspicious. These would include a bat being active during the day, or if one is spotted in a place where bats are not usually seen, or if one is just lying on the ground.

     A bat that is unable to fly and is easily approached could very well be sick. This is typically where children are at risk. They may have contact with a sick bat and not tell anyone about it. Children should be taught to never handle or pet unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, especially to never handle any bat. They may think it a kindness to try to help a sick bat, but that is never the case.

    Q. What constitutes ‘contact with a bat?’

     A. The rule of thumb is: there is no innocent exposure.

     Bats do not want to touch people. They do not accidently get off course and bump into things. If you are touched by a bat, assume you were bitten by a bat, and that bat has rabies and you need treatment. Rabies is 100% fatal, yet 100% curable. Because bat bites are incredibly subtle, this is the only measure of absolute safety in situations where the animal is not available for testing. Carefully capturing the bat is key since a negative result can prevent a lot of worry and hardship.

     If you, or someone with you, has contact with a bat, or if you awaken to find one in your tent, or if a bat has landed on you, the first step is to safely try to capture it for testing. You may not think you have been bitten, but just by the fact the bat is behaving in such a way puts you in a medically urgent situation that should not be ignored.

     Most agencies are unprepared for assisting in a medically urgent situation involving a bat, so your next step would be to contact the nearest local health department. The health department has an epidemiologist on-call 24/7 who is trained to advise you in this exact situation. Generally, physicians’ offices and Urgent Care facilities do not carry the Rabies Immune Globulin antibody serum (R.I.G.), so if for some reason you are unable to speak to someone at the health department, go to a hospital emergency room. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment is advised to begin within 72 hours of the incident.

     If PEP is diagnosed, yes, shots are involved! But you can relax a bit because the former course of twenty or so injections given in the stomach with a large, dull needle is no longer the case. The first injection, the R.I.G., is given at the bite-site and again in different intramuscular locations. The serum is thick and difficult to administer, so it’s divided into four different injected doses. The rabies follow-up vaccinations are then administered over a 14-day period in the deltoid muscle on adults and the thigh with children. One vaccine is given on Day Zero (the day you are initially treated) then again on Day 3, Day 7 and Day 14. Side-effects differ, but most commonly the vaccine brings on flu-like symptoms of headache, stiff muscles, dizziness and general malaise.

     The rabies vaccine is available, but not many places have it. Do not think you can easily go to your primary care physician on Day 3 to receive your next vaccine. It does not work that way. Even with the health department’s involvement, it may take several days to locate and ship the available serum. It is wise to start the process as soon as possible and arrange for all three follow-up doses ahead of time.

      Rabies causes between 26,000 and 55,000 deaths worldwide per year, 95% of these deaths occur in Asia and Africa. Here in America, we are fortunate that rabies exposure is easily treated; instead of being fatal, we suffer little more than a few weeks of inconvenience.

Bats and Human Rabies in the United States

 Rabies in humans is rare in the United States. There are usually only one or two human cases per year. But the most common source of human rabies in the United States is from bats.

   For example, among the 19 naturally acquired cases of rabies in humans in the United States from 1997-2006, 17 were associated with bats.

   Four people awoke because a bat landed on them and one person awoke because a bat bit him.

   One person was bitten when he tried to care for a sick bat found on the ground outdoors.

   In another case, a 10-year-old child removed a bat from his bedroom without adult supervision and several months later developed tingling and itching on his arm and one side of his head as he became sick with rabies.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Map of rabid bats reported in the United States during 2010


Note from the author: It seems people who are informed about bats and rabies usually received their education through some sort of experience. My education happened this past summer when I cranked open an outdoor umbrella to get some afternoon shade, never imagining a creature would have crawled up in there during the night.

     Bats hang upside down from their roosts, so they need to drop-down to get some lift before they can take off. That makes sense unless you happen to be laughing out loud in the drop-down zone. When I opened the umbrella, the bat dropped-down right into my mouth.

       I did not know what it was when I jerked my head back, but he fell out onto my arm, so I flung my arm and he landed on the table. That’s when I first realized it was a bat. Freaky! I think he was stunned at first. Actually, we were both stunned, but he quickly came to his senses and flew away and I telephoned my daughter, the nurse. Until I talked to her, I never once thought about rabies. I went to the ER for treatment and the staff voted me the winner, hands down, for most bizarre emergency of the day!



About the Author

  • Laura_Chamberlain's picture

    Laura JK Chamberlain is author of the double-award-winning children’s adventure book, The Story of Norman. Through the entertaining antics of a naughty squirrel, she teaches children the importance of personal accountability while showing the consequences Norman must face for his reckless disobedience.

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