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Bats and Rabies (What You've All Been Wondering)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

ZICK ALERT! I'll be giving a free public lecture tonight, Thursday, at Jefferson Middle School, 21 Moffett Street, Pittsburgh, PA. Come see me! It'll be fun!

Is that a Pez dispenser, loaded with mealworms, or a bat in your glove? Nom nom nom.

All right. On to the health issue. According to the Organization for Bat Conservation, started by my friends Kim Williams and Rob Mies, I have a better chance of winning my state lottery jackpot or being murdered by my husband than dying of rabies from a bat bite. I just love that pairing of statistics.

Given my propensity for messing around with wild things, I suspect my chances of being murdered by my husband are better than average. I'm thinking of the time I promised him a turkey vulture wouldn't vomit if we drove it to Columbus in the Bird Watcher's Digest company van. And then, whoops, it did. So I'm not sure I like those odds.

Arming myself with information, I have taken a course in handling and keeping rabies vector species and learned a lot about the disease, its course in wild animals and humans, and its prevention. The course is required by the State of Ohio to get a certification to handle these species, which appears on my rehabilitation permit. The instructor of the course told me that, given the probability that I will be handling only one or two healthy bats each year, the rabies prophylaxis shots, while recommended, are neither required nor particularly warranted. If I were taking in a whole bunch of bats, coons, foxes and skunks, doing that as a full-time thing, it would be wise to get the $700 series of vaccinations. I wish it were as cheap to protect myself as it is to protect Chet. However, if I do happen to get bitten by a bat, even one that appears healthy, I'm required by law to have its head removed and sent to a state lab for testing. That's the cost of flying without a net. Obviously, my motivation to prevent myself being bitten is extremely high. I wear gloves and long sleeves, period. No one else in the house is allowed to handle the bat.

I know there are those who, reading this, will be afraid. Afraid for me, afraid for my family. I offer this: Yes, bats can get rabies. But they are not passive carriers of rabies, as I had always erroneously supposed. In fact, when they get rabies, they show symptoms and die from it, like any other mammal. Once a bat starts showing symptoms, it will be dead within a week. And only a bat showing symptoms can transmit rabies in its saliva, for the virus has to have infiltrated the brain both to cause symptoms and enter the saliva. We don't know the incubation period of rabies in bats. That would be a good thing to know. It's quite rapid--about a week to ten days--in most furbearing mammals, although one fox was known to have developed the disease 15 months after being exposed. Eep.

The percentage of wild bats with rabies is approximately one half of one percent. I was surprised to learn how low the incidence is. The percentage of bats (often visibly ill) which are brought to health departments and test positive for rabies is approximately five percent. Bats that are compromised enough to be grounded and captured are obviously a sample skewed toward sick animals.

My nephew named her Fledermaus, but I call her DeeDee. Middle name: Marie. And I am grateful that she has come into my life. It's like having a teacher in all things bat-related staying for a little while. And I can already tell that our time together will be too short.


Ok, just be careful. I have to say that even though you obviously are.

Here at school, I am the go to critter guy, so bat capture falls to me.
If I can get to it before some kid handles it, the bat lives.

Once a kid handles it here at school,it's head belongs to the health dept, since they can not take a chance with a child's life.
It doesn't take much of a entry point for transmission ... remember the Texas teen with the open window a few years back?

Wonderful post! Thank you for adding the statistics; when I worked at a wind farm it was *highly recommended* that I get the rabies shots. Indeed, the odds of ever coming upon a live OR dead bat that would have resulted in me ending up with rabies was so minute that I was "allowed" not to get the shots. There was a higher chance of being struck by lightning (or having a turbine blade fall on me), it's really too bad there's so much fear mongering associated with bats. /end of rant!

I believe statistics also state that you are more likely to get rabies from an unvaccinated domestic pet (read: a neighbor's free running cat or dog) than a bat?

And yet still the myths persist!!! Especially when it comes to bats. *grrrr* Ranting right along with Heidi.

On the other hand, I agree that most people shouldn't be picking up stray/sick/injured animals in the first place. More for the animal's protection than that of the person, but still... ;o)

Thanx for the neato information... but my favorite part of the post is the image of you and hubby riding around in van with a nauseous turkey vulture on board (now there's an image that begets a chuckle).

Ok, Julie (putting on my veterinarian hat), I think an important distinction is that the AVERAGE person's chances of winning the state lottery are greater (I'm not touching the "murdered by husband" one!). The average person is not living with and handling a bat on a daily basis. I would expect that your risk factor would be significantly higher. Personally I would not be comfortable doing it without the rabies pre-exposure vaccine (and I did years of wildlife rehab and zoo work without it, although I was younger and braver (aka dumber!) then). PLEASE be careful and limit your kids' exposure. Also remember there is some evidence of transmission through bat urine, although I would think in your situation that risk WOULD be pretty small.

Was only a couple of years ago that a man died of unknown causes (but had some neurologic signs); it was only after something like SEVEN people who received organs from him developed rabies that they were able to test him and determine that he had contracted and died of it from an unreported bat bite. In my area (northern KY just south of Cincy) bats are the number one species in which rabies is diagnosed.

Heidi states in her March 18 comment that “I believe statistics also state that you are more likely to get rabies from an unvaccinated domestic pet (read: a neighbor's free running cat or dog) than a bat?”

That’s not quite right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( gives this summary of human deaths from rabies, from 1995 – 2008: Of the 40 human rabies deaths confirmed, 26 were from bats (4 from transplanted organs..bat origin), 8 dogs of foreign origin, 1 raccoon, 1 fox. So the statistics do not show you are more likely to get rabies from an unvaccinated domestic pet. Still, I agree all pets should be vaccinated against rabies, it’s easy and it’s the responsible thing to do. The CDC also says bats are a beneficial species and need protection.

Posted by Anonymous March 18, 2010 at 3:53 PM

I'm still trying to grasp this. It seems that, while the infection rate of ALL bats is very small, wouldn't humans be more likely to come in contact with sick bats since those would be the ones not moving about swiftly and skillfully, but rather, crawling around where people can grab them?

People are really afraid of bats and rabies. A neighbor had a bat enter the bedroom where a very young infant was sleeping. There was no evidence of any bite, but the bat got away, so they put the tiny child through the whole series of rabies shots - just in case.

Anon, it was Cape May Wren with the pet statistics, not me.

CDC may value bats, but apparently nobody other than Bat Conservation International is doing anything about protecting them and most of the NE bats are losing a lot of population ground to "white nose syndrome" - not to mention wind turbines all over the country. I'll gladly live with whatever bat/rabies consequences there are (seriously, how often does the average person come across a bat anyway?)


You're lucky if it would cost only $700 for the pre-exposure rabies shots. My husband and I trekked in Bhutan late last year, and since there are many, many stray dogs in the country (unvaccinated) AND we were to be more than 48 hours from medical care, we were advised, in preparation for the journey, to get the series of 3 shots - AT $300 PER SHOT. For that amount of money, we really think we should be bullet-proof now!

Oh my, you ARE in love with this little furry girl bat. Sounds like both of you are lucky to have found each other.

That is one adorable creature. I was lucky enough once to get to observe some people mist-netting and tagging bats - it was amazing. Now I teach outdoor ed to sixth graders, and we play a bat-and-moth version Marco Polo to demonstrate echolocation. So fun!

It is a very tough thing to promise that a turkey vulture won't vomit. I find that no matter how hard you hope they won't, they do. Especially if you are being quite nice to them. Nothing like recently gulped dead rat flying at you to get your attention.

It is interesting how much people fear bats--is it the rabies vector connection? Or fear of a flying mammal? Jealousy? (No--just threw that one in.)
Anyway, I am convinced of your carefulness in handling, thus do not have the fears that others have voiced. Certainly, I can understand the caution--rabies being one of the rare diseases that is 100% fatal if untreated (although, I think I read of someone a year ago surviving, without shots treatment--she was put into a deep coma, etc. Blah blah--saying no more. It would work against my essential thesis--that I think you are safe.)

Julie - I may not be seeing correctly in the photo - but if I am - that's one serious set of chompers on Bat Girl.

While I know you are careful, you must promise to be very very careful - as we worry.

Point taken: mixed up my vector percentages and my "chance of contracting" percentages! Having once picked up a downed bat myself, I should know better...

And how, exactly, do bats get rabies in the first place?

What really gets my goat is the whole disconnect most people have with the "natural world" these days... It's an attitude that makes mountains out of mole hills: Don't touch don't touch don't touch. When it involves rabies, this is naturally the best of advice, but when it carries over into so much more... Argh.

Thanks as always for sharing your enthusiasm and knowledge, Ms. Zickefoose! And letting us rant--and continue to learn--in your comment section.

So many questions! Starting with: how in the world did anyone know a rabid fox had been exposed 15 months prior? People even fib a little on the Red Cross blood donation questions. Foxes may be more truthful on the whole, but everyone's got something they don't want to talk about.

And observations: I'll bet the odds of being murdered by your husband go way up if you do win the lottery, bat or no bat. And: gotta say. Turkey vulture vomit must be really something. REally something.

One more thing: next time let the vulture ride in the front seat, with the window cracked a little.

You know you have fully embraced the world when you've given your heart to a bat... and here I have done so vicariously! What a wonderful, educational, eye-opening experience. I appreciate it immensely that you share it here for us.

The TV story is hilarious. TV riding in the front seat wearing a bib is even more hilarious!

Hi there. Someone who reads my blog referred me to yours. Late last night while straightening our bedcovers before going to be, a little brown bat appeared. I don't know if it was tucked into the folds of the bedspread or what, but I pulled up the covers and then I noticed it on the corner. It was very, very still; I thought it was dead. My husband donned gloves and I got my son's butterfly net to contain it; that's when we realized it was alive but very lethargic. We took it outside and put it (on the net) on the picnic table on our deck. We watched as it crawled across the table, fell to the deck, and crawled across the deck. This morning my husband found it on the horizontal surface of the second step down from the deck, so he took it with him to work (he's a large animal vet) and this afternoon drove it to the nearest Audobon Society office over an hour away. They said it looked uninjured and healthy, and recommended he take it home and release it. We put it on the trunk of a tree this evening. Checked back after a few minutes and it was gone.

You don't say in this post what the symptoms of rabies are; I must admit that Mr. Bat's behavior didn't seem normal and worried me. I would be interested in your input.

I stumbled on this article trying to find out what the odds are of a bat flying in my moving van window and hitting me on the head, which happened to me 2 days ago. I imagine its got to be rare, I live in NE Ohio in the country. I think it must have broken its neck on my head, I smacked it out of my hair and it landed on the floor and stayed there til my husband put it in a commemorative jar for us.

Posted by Anonymous July 18, 2010 at 7:35 AM

Thanks for this post. Most informative. I have found that people simply freak out over bats when in truth, they are beneficial critters. I wish someone would deliver a semi load of bats to my home near the shore of the Great Salt Lake every spring. I think I would have fewer mosquito bites.

If a person is bumped in the dark on a walk and sees nothing could it have even been a bat? Could they have been bitten in such a short bump and with only one visible scratch which was probably caused by themselves scratching and worrying our the encounter? Could a rabid bat disappear so quickly? I think it must have been a June bug but still worry. Help

Oh dear, Susanna. I know what your mind is doing right now. Look. I can't answer that, because I didn't feel the bump, don't know if it's a bug or a bat. You'd definitely feel cool leathery flailing wings and hear a kerfuffle if a bat ran into you (which is really unlikely, since they use sonar to avoid such things.) If it was a June bug, you certainly would have heard the buzz of its wings. Did you?

Having said that, I had a fruit bat fly smack into my chest in the Amazon of Brazil one night, because I walked across its path and it wasn't expecting me. Smack! Flail flail flap flap flap! Ack! Ack! I did the Get Off Me dance. It didn't bite me, and I am still alive. And I'm sorry I can't answer your question.

I have to say that the Smack! Flail flap flap flap did not happen. More of an invisible buzz. Now I feel fine! Thank you!!!

Thank you so much. There was no Smack! Flail flail flail flap flap! Now I am sure it was a bug!

I live near Patagonia,AZ and have about 75 bats living in the rafters of my covered patio. I watch them leave in the early evening and return just after dawn. I have had them come extremely close but never had one run into me. Not sure what kind they are but they are supposed to migrate soon. They do a great service by eating huge amounts of bugs so I am happy to accomadete them.

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