Each year, as the weather heats up in Spokane County and people and pets spend more time outdoors, the possibility for contact with potentially rabid bats increases.
It is also a time of year when Spokane Regional Health District experiences an influx in calls from concerned citizens. To better meet community need, SRHD created a suite of prevention and education materials under the name BatSmart, located at srhd.org/batsmart.
Central to BatSmart is an illustration of a backyard and associated steps home owners can take to reduce interactions with bats. The related fact sheets -Bats On Your Property, Bats in Contact with People, Bats in Contact with Pets , and FAQs - include instructions to follow if potential contact with a bat occurs, as well as helping individuals to determine if they should call their healthcare provider and/or the health district.
Rabies is a deadly virus that affects the central nervous system. The virus is found in the saliva of a rabid animal and is usually spread to humans by animal bites, but can also be spread if the virus comes in contact with the eyes, nose, mouth, open cuts, or wounds.
Any warm-blooded mammal, including humans, can get rabies; however, bats are the only animal in Washington state known to carry rabies. Rabid bats have been found in almost every county in the state.
Nonetheless, bats are beneficial to people and the environment. But, due to bats’ potential to spread rabies, individuals are reminded to avoid contact with them and pet owners are encouraged to vaccinate their dogs and cats against the fatal disease.
Rabies vaccinations are required for dogs, cats and ferrets in Washington state.
These local reminders coincide with a news release from Washington state Department of Health and confirmation that stats for May show the highest number of rabid bats statewide in 20 years. Locally, several human exposures to bats occurred this spring -- none of the bats tested positive for rabies.
If SRHD staff determine an exposure to a human may have occurred, a bat should -- with proper precautions and support from SRHD -- be tested for rabies. In 2017, SRHD helped to ship 33 bats for rabies testing, four of which were positive. One of the rabid bats was associated with two potential human exposures—rabies infection was prevented with post-bite vaccines.
SRHD Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said, “Prompt administration of this treatment is highly effective in preventing rabies following exposure.” Continued Lutz, “Although most bats are harmless and do not carry rabies, people should never handle live or dead bats.
To protect yourself and your loved ones, your safest bet is to simply presume every bat is rabid.”
A bat bite or scratch may not be seen or felt due to the small size of a bat’s teeth and claws. People usually come in contact with a bat when it gets into a home through small openings or open windows, when they wake up to find a bat in their room, or when pets bring them into the home.
A potential rabies exposure should never be taken lightly. In 2015, a rabid bat bit a child in Spokane County, resulting in vaccination of both the child and mother. Again, if left untreated, rabies is almost always fatal. The last reported human cases of rabies in Washington state were in 1997 and 1995.
In 2017, 22 rabid bats were identified in the state. On average, Washington State Public Health Laboratory tests approximately 300 bats per year for rabies—roughly 5 percent of them test positive. Yet it is estimated less than 1 percent of bats in the wild carry rabies; a higher percent test positive as sick or injured bats are more likely to be tested. Statewide, aside from bats, the most recent rabies cases (caused by bats) in animals was a cat in 2015 and a dog in 1987. There is no need to test bats that have not come in to contact with people or pets.
For more information on rabies in Spokane County, go tosrhd.org. Statewide information is available on the Washington State Department of Healthwebsite here, and national information on the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control web pagelocated here. Become a fan of SRHD on Facebook to receive local safety and wellness tips. You can also follow SRHD on Twitter@spokanehealth.