Are bats furry little flying friends or creatures from a nightmare come to attack us in the night? The more realistic view takes a middle road.
Fish and Game biologist Rita Dixon noted that two recent cases of bats that tested positive for rabies-one in Canyon County and one in Valley County-have led to a number of news stories urging the public to beware of bats. "What we don't read is that an estimated one half of one percent of bats in wild populations contract the rabies virus."
However, most of the recent human rabies cases in the United States have been caused by rabies virus from bats. To date this year in Idaho, of 350 animals submitted to the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories for rabies testing, 56 were bats. Of 51 bats that could be tested, four tested positive Dixon said. That includes the two from Canyon and Valley Counties.
"What is not considered when we read about bats and rabies is that the bats submitted for rabies testing are not randomly sampled from the wild. Instead, the bats that are submitted for testing represent a biased sample because they are bats that are sick, have bitten someone, or have had other contact with humans or domestic animals," Dixon explained.
A common misconception is that bats "carry" rabies. Bats are not asymptomatic carriers of rabies, that is, the rabies virus does not exist indefinitely in a bat host. When a bat contracts rabies, it dies. In addition, bats contract the passive form of rabies. When a bat begins to show clinical signs of the disease, it becomes lethargic, loses its appetite, and often ends up grounded because it can no longer fly or feed. Another misconception often presented in the media is the notion that bats "attack" people. Bats are by nature gentle animals. They do not attack people. People get into trouble with bats when they attempt to pick them up. Any wild animal is going to act defensively when someone attempts to pick it up.
Other warnings about bats include the advice that a bat seen flying in the daytime is unusual and constitutes a risk to human safety. But bats do occasionally fly in the daytime to get a drink or to feed, especially during the fall when they are on the move. Two of the 14 species of bats in Idaho are long-distance migrants and fly south for the winter. The other species move into winter hibernacula. Young bats are making their first journeys into unfamiliar landscapes and can often turn up in unexpected places. The energy expenditures associated with travels often leave them dehydrated and depleted of energy. Bats that don't have enough energy stores can often end up grounded because they are weak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is not necessary to test a bat for rabies unless it has had physical contact with a human or a domestic pet. If you are bitten by a bat-or if infectious material (such as saliva) from a bat gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or a wound-wash the affected area thoroughly and get medical advice immediately. Whenever possible, the bat should be captured and sent to a laboratory for rabies testing (see "How can I safely capture a bat in my home?" on the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/nci ). People usually know when they have been bitten by a bat. However, bats have small teeth, which may leave marks not easily seen, and some situations require that you seek medical advice even in the absence of an obvious bite wound. For example, if you awaken and find a bat in your room, or if you see a bat in the room of an unattended child, or near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice and have the bat tested. People cannot get rabies from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave, or at a distance. In addition, people cannot get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine, or from touching a bat on its fur (even though bats should never be handled!).
- Wash any wound from an animal thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.
- Keep vaccinations current for all dogs, cats, and ferrets. This is important not only to keep your pets from getting rabies, but also to provide a barrier of protection for you and your family if your animal is bitten by a rabid wild animal.
- Keep your pets under direct supervision so they do not come in contact with wild animals. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance for the animal immediately, even if their vaccinations are current.
- Call animal control to remove stray animals from your neighborhood. They may be unvaccinated and could be infected with the disease.
- Avoid direct contact with unfamiliar animals. Do not handle, feed, or unintentionally attract wild animals with open garbage cans or litter.
- Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly. "Love your own, leave other animals alone" is a good principle for children to learn.
- Prevent bats from entering living quarters or occupied spaces in homes, churches, schools, and other similar areas where they might contact people and pets.
If you find a grounded or otherwise injured bat, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area. A state-by-state list of bat workers is located at www.batworld.org (click on Local Rescue). If you are unable to access that list, please call Bat World Sanctuary at 940-325-3404 for help in locating a Bat World rescue center or a bat rehabilitator.