During our long Northwest evenings, with lots of bugs around in summer, bat sightings are common. You may see them darting through the evening sky as they collect mosquitoes and other insects for their suppers.
In fact, bats are great to have around for just that reason. They can eat their weight in biting bugs (and non-biting ones) every night. In addition to keeping the mosquito population down, bats help protect crops from insects, and help to pollinate a wide variety of plants.
However, while bats provide many benefits to people, they also can carry rabies, which is a rare but potentially deadly disease, not only to humans, but also to pets.
Rabies is a virus, and while it can be carried by four-footed wild animals, the only carriers we know of in Washington state are bats. The virus lives in the saliva of an infected animal. It can be spread through bites, but also through cuts or scratches. Because bat teeth and nails are tiny, it is not always easy to know whether you have been bitten or scratched. There is a vaccine that can prevent someone exposed to rabies from getting the disease, but it relies on being given soon after the exposure. Once a human develops rabies, death is almost always the result.
The Washington State Public Health Laboratories tests between 200 and 300 bats per year. Although rabies is fatal, it’s important to know that only about 6 percent of bats across the state carry the disease. There were 22 bats with confirmed rabies in Washington state during 2017. Thurston County has seen eight rabid bats over the last 11 years, several of which were discovered in preschools, or by young children.
It is not possible to tell if a bat has rabies just from looking at it, and handling an infected bat can potentially transfer the disease, whether the bat is alive or dead. So what should you do if you find one?
- Don’t handle bats with bare hands, and do not allow anyone in your family to handle one, even if it’s dead.
- Don’t allow your pet to touch or play with a bat and keep your pets vaccinated against rabies. If you find a bat in a bedroom or with an unattended child, put on gloves and try to safely capture the bat so that it can be tested. Public health staff can be contacted after hours and on weekends through 9-1-1.
- Teach kids not to touch or handle a bat, even if it’s dead. Instead, they should tell a responsible adult right away.
If you believe that you or a family member may have touched a bat or been bitten or scratched by one, wash the area with soap and water, and call Thurston County Public Health and Social Services at 360-867-2667.
It’s also very important to make sure your pets are vaccinated against the rabies virus. In Washington state, it is mandatory to vaccinate your dogs, cats, and ferrets against rabies. This is because, even though it’s rare, rabies is a deadly disease — for your pet, and for people. If an unvaccinated pet has been exposed to rabies, health officials are required to quarantine the pet for up to six months, and it’s possible the pet may need to be euthanized. Better to be prepared and get your four-footed family members vaccinated.
Bats hibernate in the fall, and that’s when your attic, chimney or other household nooks and crannies may look especially good to a bat. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a free printable information sheet on how to bat-proof your house or apartment.
No matter what the occasion, a bat in the sky is an exciting opportunity to watch the food web in action, and say goodbye to some of those pesky mosquitoes. Knowing what to do when a bat is too close for comfort is important for your health, your family’s health, and for our pets, too.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.