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Public Health Officials Urge Caution Around Bats, Other Wildlife

Armen Hareyan's picture

Spring and summer mean more outdoor time and more open windows-and more chances for people to come in contact with wildlife, including flying bats.

While many people are aware that raccoons, foxes and unvaccinated dogs and cats may carry rabies, many do not know that bats can also transmit this deadly disease to people. And because bats are small and quiet, and their bites are usually painless, people don't always realize when they have been bitten. In recent years, human cases of rabies in the United States are almost exclusively linked to bats.

While rabies disease can be prevented if a person is treated very soon after they are exposed, once symptoms develop rabies is nearly always fatal. Since there is no known cure, people must know what they can do to protect themselves and their families.

People should not sleep in a cabin, tent, shelter or lodging facility if bats are present. If you awaken to find a bat in your room, tent or cabin, it should be captured and tested for rabies as quickly as possible, and you should seek medical advice. If the bat cannot be captured, you have to assume you have been exposed and seek medical treatment. If numerous bats are present, do not attempt to collect them all. Leave the structure and seek medical advice.

Use care when capturing a bat. Never handle a bat with your bare hands. If you can confine the bat in a closed room where it cannot escape, do that and call your local animal control for help. If you must capture the bat yourself, wear leather work gloves. You will need a small box or metal can, a piece of cardboard and tape. When the bat lands, approach it slowly and place the box or can over it. Slide the cardboard under the container to trap the bat inside. Tape the cardboard securely to the container. Contact your local animal control or health department to get the bat picked up and tested.

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If you know you have been bitten, thoroughly wash the wound with lots of soap and water and call a doctor immediately. If you can't capture the bat, then you must still talk with a physician about what medical care you might need. If there is a chance you may have been exposed to rabies, or if the animal is caught and it tests positive for rabies, you will need to get a series of shots to prevent the disease. You cannot wait to see if you get sick, because there is no known cure once the disease develops.

Over 1,200 bats were tested for rabies in North Carolina in 2006. Only about 3 percent of the bats tested positive for rabies. Most bats pose no risk to humans, but you never know which ones may be infected, so any physical contact with bats must be regarded as a potential exposure to rabies.

Other wildlife, like raccoons, skunks and foxes, may also carry rabies. In 2006 in North Carolina, 657 raccoons were submitted for rabies testing; 297 (45%) were positive. In addition, 139 foxes were tested and 50 (36%) were positive; 115 skunk were tested and 91 (79%) were found to be positive. Bobcats and coyotes were also identified with rabies last year. These animals were identified from across the entire state, from counties on the coast to those that border Tennessee.

Because rabies is present to such an extent in our wild animal population, care must be taken. Never touch, pet or feed wild animals, whether they appear to be sick or not.

Open containers of food - including pet food - or garbage may attract these animals to your yard or campsite, so keep garbage and food in tightly sealed containers and feed pets indoors. Raccoons in particular are a highly adaptable species and thrive living in proximity to humans.

Because so many people live close to wildlife, it is important to keep your dogs, cats, and ferrets vaccinated against rabies. Pets act as a buffer between people and wild animals; yet 19 cats, eight dogs, and one ferret were found to be rabid in the state last year. Avoid any physical contact with unfamiliar dogs and cats. Pet only animals that you know have been vaccinated against rabies. Make sure your own pets have up-to-date rabies vaccinations, and do not leave your pets outdoors unattended. Do not try to separate animals that are fighting. If your pet comes in contact with an animal that might be rabid, contact your veterinarian. If you are bitten by someone's pet, get the owners name, address, and telephone number; wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water; and contact your doctor.

Rabies is a fatal but preventable disease. People can protect themselves and their families by following these common-sense guidelines. And if you do come into contact with a bat - even briefly - or other potentially rabid animal, it is important that you see a doctor right away.