Rabies: What to do when you wake up and there’s a bat in the room (after you scream!)

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As people head out to enjoy the outdoors this summer or stay outside later with daylight savings time, it’s a good time to talk about how to avoid being exposed to rabies, which is a fatal disease caused by a virus. While many people still associate contracting rabies with domestic dog bites, since 1960 the majority of all rabid animal cases in the U.S. have been with wild animals and bats.

Why is rabies so scary?

Because it is 100 percent fatal for people and animals who do not get timely medical attention. A couple of people in the United States die each year from it, usually because they’ve been bitten or scratched by an animal and didn’t seek medical attention soon after.

What animals in Idaho carry the rabies virus?

In Idaho, the main carrier animal is the bat, but rabies also has been found in other wild and domestic animals. In other states, raccoons, skunks and foxes are also natural carriers of the virus. All animals should be considered potentially rabid if they bite, scratch, or expose people to their saliva.

How common is it in Idaho?                                                           

We average about 16 rabid bat reports a year in the state. Last year, we had 20, with more than half of those – 11 – in Ada County. Even though most bats don’t carry the disease, you can’t always tell if they are sick, so you should always avoid them. If you or your pet has come into contact with a bat, you should see a doctor or a veterinarian as soon as possible.

What kind of medical attention should you expect if you are exposed?

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal that could be carrying the virus, washing the wound thoroughly with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to decrease your chance of infection. Then call a doctor. If there’s a possibility that you’ve been exposed to rabies, you could be given the rabies vaccination series, but each situation is unique. The series is one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine in a 14-day period, typically in the arm. You’ll get the immune globulin and the first dose of the vaccine on the same day.

How can you tell if a bat is sick?

The only way to know for sure that a bat has rabies is to have it tested in a lab. People usually come into contact with bats when a pet brings one home, or when it gets into your home some other way. If you wake up and find a bat in your room, you may have been exposed without knowing it. They have tiny teeth, so it can be difficult to know if you’ve been bitten. If possible, try to capture the bat (wearing leather gloves), and then have it tested for rabies and see a doctor. Start by calling your local public health district; they can work with you and sometimes your veterinarian to have the bat tested for free.

How can we protect ourselves and our pets from rabies?

  • First and foremost, you should never touch a bat with your bare hands. Wear leather gloves if you have to touch it.
  • You can keep bats out of your homes and cabins by plugging all the holes in the siding and maintaining tight-fitting screens on windows.
  • And be sure your pets’ rabies vaccinations are up to date, even if they are strictly indoor pets. That includes dogs, cats, and horses.
  • And finally, teach your children to avoid bats and to tell an adult if they find one. As tempting as it might be to take it to school to show their classmates, that is a definite no-no.

“A Closer Look at Your Health” airs Tuesdays at 6:50 a.m. on KBOI-670 AM in Boise. This is an expanded transcript of the program that aired June 13, 2017.

Rabies resources:

IDHW: http://www.rabies.dhw.idaho.gov

Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html

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