State health department warns about danger of getting rabies, especially from bats; advises to never touch a bat

Photo from Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Public health officials are reminding Kentuckians about the dangers of rabies exposure from bats and other wildlife.

“We want to highlight the importance of rabies prevention and control efforts in our communities, while also reminding Kentuckians of the existing dangers of coming into contact with rabid bats and other wildlife,” Kelly Giesbrecht, veterinarian with the state Department of Public Health, said in a news release. “To avoid possible rabies exposure, wildlife should not be fed, handled or treated as pets.”

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system. It is transmitted from animals to humans by the saliva of a rabid animal, usually from a bite or scratch. The virus cannot infiltrate intact skin.

Because bats are so small, it is sometimes difficult to know if you have been bitten or scratched by one, so the health department warns that any suspected exposure should not be taken lightly. “If untreated, rabies is fatal,” says the release.

Rule number one when it comes to protecting yourself from rabies is to never handle a bat.

If you find one in your home, call the local animal control office to remove it and then call a healthcare provider or local health department to determine if preventive treatment is required.

Only a small percentage of bats have rabies, but health officials warn that you can’t tell if they have the disease just by looking at them — though they advise extra precautions around bats that are flying during the day, are in locations where they are normally not found, like your home, or are unable to fly at all.

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension graphic

It’s also important to protect your home by sealing all of the holes that are larger than a quarter-inch. The health department says the best time to do this is in the fall or winter so that any bats that might already be inside are not unintentionally trapped.

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service offers further tips on how to protect your home from bats, noting that it’s important to take the time to to seal all points of entry because bats return each year to their “nursery colony.”

The most common ways for bats to enter homes are through chimneys, vents and openings behind shutters or under doors, siding, eaves and shingles.

The release also points out that it is illegal to remove bats from an area between May and August because that is when they raise their young. Instead, health officials say to consult with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife if you have a bat problem in your home during these months.

In the U.S., rabies is most commonly spread by bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and foxes. Once clinical symptoms are present, there is no known medical cure for rabies.

Symptoms of rabies can initially mimic the flu, including general weakness, fever and headache. A person can also have a strange sensations at the site of the bite from a rabid animal. These symptoms can progress within days to symptoms of anxiety, confusion and agitation. Further progression of the disease includes symptoms of hallucinations, insomnia and fear of water, all of which are quickly followed by death, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

There are usually only one or two human cases of rabies in the U.S. each year, and the most common source is from bats. The health department reports that the last case of human rabies in Kentucky from a bat was in 1996.

“Among the 19 naturally acquired cases of rabies in humans in the U.S. from 1997 to 2006, 17 were associated with bats. Among these, 14 patients had known encounters with bats. In these cases, the bat was inside the home,” saysthe CDC.

Tips to protect yourself from rabies:

  • Do not touch a bat, and teach children to not touch them.
  • Keep your pets vaccinated; it’s not only good practice, it’s the law in Kentucky.
  • Do not interact with wildlife, or intentionally feed wildlife.
  • If you’ve been bitten or scratched, wash the wound immediately with soap and water for at least 10 minutes and call your health-care provider.
  • Remember, bats have very small teeth which may leave marks that disappear quickly. If you are unsure, seek medical advice.
  • If a bat is found in a room with an unattended child or near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice.
  • Report all animal bites to your local health department
  • If possible, confine the animal so it can be quarantined or tested.
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