With the summer heat finally arriving, the Thurston County Health Department has been getting a lot more calls about bats and animal bites. We open our windows to cool down our homes and, in the process, may actually let in flying insects and the bats that feed on them.
Bats are an important part of our ecosystem, but they do not belong inside a home. The reason: In Washington, bats are the animal of most concern for rabies – 5 percent to 7 percent of bats tested in the past 20 years were rabid. In other parts of the United States, dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks are known to carry rabies, but we rarely see rabies in other animals here.
Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system in mammals. Early symptoms are similar to other illnesses: fever, headache, and general weakness. Later symptoms include insomnia, hallucinations, and anxiety. Death usually occurs days after these more advanced symptoms begin. People exposed to a rabid animal must receive anti-rabies vaccines to prevent the disease. The virus can be transmitted after a bite from an infected animal. It can also be spread to open wounds or mucous membranes by an infected animal’s saliva.
Bats are not aggressive animals, and most of them don’t have rabies. Those seen flying at dusk and feeding on insects are usually healthy (99 percent of them) and will avoid contact with people. However, a bat that is flying during the day or appears sick and unable to fly is more likely to be rabid. They should be avoided and never handled.
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While bats are migrating in the spring and fall, they may temporarily rest in unusual places, such as attics.
If you find a bat in the house, close the doors and windows to the room; wear leather or other thick gloves; capture the bat in a pan or can without touching it; seal the container; and do not release the bat.
The type of container is important: Bats can chew through paper and plastic bags or boxes.
Once the bat is captured, call your health department (in Thurston County, call 360-867-2667) and we will help you determine whether any people or pets in your home may have been exposed and we can arrange to test the bat for rabies, if needed.
Beyond that, “batproof” your home with screens on all open windows and seal other small entry points.
Bats can enter through a 1/4-inch gap. Filling cracks and crevices around your house might help save you from having to get a series of rabies shots.
Speaking of which, animal bites are another common problem every summer. Here are some tips to keep from getting bitten:
• Make sure your pets and other animals (dogs, cats, goats, horses, etc.) are current on their rabies vaccine.
• Try not to get in the middle of your pet’s encounters with wild animals.
• Especially avoid wild animals that are injured or with their young. They will naturally be more protective and more likely to bite. Do not pick up injured animals.
• If you do get bitten, clean the site with soap and water. Contact your health care provider to determine the potential for rabies exposure, the need for treatment, and to decide whether to test the animal for rabies.
For more information on rabies, see the Department of Health website (www.doh.wa.gov/EHSPHL/factsheet/rabiesfct.htm) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rabies page (www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies/default.htm).
Dr. Diana T. Yu is the health officer for Thurston and Mason counties. She can be reached at 360-867-2501 or firstname.lastname@example.org.