Bats are linked to human rabies cases. Forty-two of the 52 human cases of rabies in the U.S. between 1990 and 2016 were due to rabies from bats.

While we see rabies in bats across the US, including Vermont, most bats do not have rabies. In Vermont, only 5 percent of bats have it. The problem is that you can’t tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it. Testing the bat is the only way to know. Follow this rule of thumb: If you see a bat during the day, or find one in an atypical location, such as your home or lawn, it may be rabid.

Don’t handle any bats, even if you come across a dead or sick bat. Bats that aren’t able to fly and who let you approach could be sick. Some may carry rabies. It’s more likely that they have white nose syndrome, an illness that affects bats across the Northeast. If you find a group of dead or sick bats you should report this to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Rabies treatment

Each year there are only 1 or 2 cases of rabies in humans in the U.S., but about 40,000 people are protected by vaccines. Stopping rabies after exposure involves a group of 2, 4, or 5 shots, depending on if you received treatment for rabies before and if you have a healthy immune system.

Who needs to be treated?

Rabies spreads through bites or saliva in a cut or scratch, eyes, nose, or mouth. Because of this, it’s a rabies exposure risk when you find a bat in the room of a sleeping person or unattended child, or make contact with a bat.

If this happens, you may send the bat in for testing. You don’t need treatment if the bat tests negative for rabies. If the bat tests positive for rabies or if it’s unable to be sent in for testing, the person needs treatment. ONLY TRY TO CATCH A BAT IF YOU ARE ABLE TO CATCH IT WITHOUT BEING BITTEN.

People sometimes don’t feel bat bites. Not feeling or seeing a bite mark doesn’t mean that you weren’t bitten. You don’t need to be treated for rabies if you had no contact with the bat while you were in the same room, and at all times you were aware of where the bat was.

Have all dead, sick, or easily captured bats tested for rabies if they were exposed to people or pets.

What about pets?

Even pets that are up to date on their rabies shot or are overdue for a booster should be treated right away and watched for 45 days. There are no treatments for rabies in animals, so pets that have never had a rabies shot should be put in strict quarantine for 4-6 months, or put down immediately by an animal health professional. Call your vet’s office with any questions.

How to capture a bat

  • ONLY TRY IF YOU CAN AVOID BEING BITTEN
  • Wear gloves.
  • After bat lands, place box or other container over it, slide cardboard under container and tape securely.
  • Call rabies hotline for guidance.
  • You do not have to try this on your own. Game wardens, animal control officers, nuisance trappers, town health officers, etc. can help you.

General rabies safety reminders

  • Do not feed or touch wild animals or animals you do not know, even baby animals
  • Get rabies shots for all your pets, including cats
  • Call doctor if bitten, get animal saliva in cut, eyes, nose or mouth

Resources and telephone numbers

  • USDA Vermont Rabies Hotline: 1-800-472-2437 (1-800-4-RABIES) or 1-802-223-8697
    • Live rabies and wildlife information by wildlife biologists, available Mon-Fri (except federal holidays), 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. On weekends, recorded information and guidance.
  • Vermont Health Department Rabies Contact Number: 1-800-640-4374 (Vermont only) or 802-863-7240.
    • Mon-Fri (except state holidays), 8:00 am to 4:30 pm.
    • Available 24/7 for health care providers, wildlife and law enforcement officials, town health officers and veterinarians.
    • Also responsible for managing animals that may have exposed humans, assessing human and animal rabies exposure, coordinating rabies specimen testing, and providing vaccination guidelines.
  • Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department: 802-241-3700.
  • Game wardens and town health officers: Find the number of your local game warden or town health officer on the Vermont Department of Health website.

For more information about rabies in general or bats in particular

Emily Forbes-Mobus, MD, is a family medicine resident at Family Medicine Milton. 

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