San Juan Basin Public Health has identified a second case of rabies in La Plata County’s bat population. Although the chance that any given bat is carrying rabies is low, it is important to keep pet vaccinations up to date and to report abnormal wild animal behavior.
The relatively low rate of confirmed rabies cases in bats in the county tracks with case rates from previous years, but Liane Jollon, director of SJBPH, said it is still important to avoid contact with wild animals, report unorthodox animal behavior and keep pet vaccinations up to date.
“When bats are sick they often behave differently than bats that are healthy and are doing normal bat things,” she said.
She said it isn’t unusual for people to capture bats that are sick or acting abnormally and turn them over to the health department for testing. But the number of bats tested can skew the perception of how prevalent rabies is in a bat population.
“We often have bats with rabies,” she said. “But the percentage of bats that are positive for rabies at any given time is very low.”
Bats play an important role in the ecosystem, she said. They eat other disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes that can spread West Nile virus. A healthy bat population plays a role in keeping human populations healthy, as well.
But the most common way humans contract rabies in the United States is through infected bats, she said. Skunks, foxes and raccoons can also contract and spread the disease, but predominantly, it is spread through bats.
That’s why it is important for the public to understand the risks associated with the rabies virus, she said.
Rabies is an incredibly dangerous disease with a fatality rate of over 99% in cases after the onset of symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.
The No. 1 risk of rabies infection is through a bite from an infected bat that breaks the skin, Jollon said. Bat bites can be “extraordinarily small and hard to see,” she said.
If for some reason a person has made direct contact with a bat, the bat should be captured and euthanize, and it is likely the person would begin a treatment for rabies.
People should use heavy gloves if attempting to capture a bat, or they can use a box or bowl. But they should never touch a bat with their bare hands.
A bite from a rabies-positive bat doesn’t mean imminent death if treatment is sought with urgency, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for SJBPH.
“Once you’re bitten and infected, it (rabies) does move relatively slowly up into your brain. It’s when you start experiencing symptoms that the fatality becomes almost certain,” she said.
Should someone wake up with a bat in the house, and it is unknown if the bat has bitten someone in the household, the health department recommends reporting the animal. An evaluation will be conducted and possibly followed by a recommendation for rabies prophylaxis, Jollon said.
When it comes to protecting pets from rabies, SJBPH recommends keeping pet food indoors, avoid handling sick or orphaned animals, leashing dogs on walks, supervising them in backyards when possible, and keeping cats inside at night.
Livestock should be vaccinated with large-animal rabies vaccines annually, according to a news release from the health department. All vaccinations for pets and livestock should be performed by a licensed veterinarian.
“It’s important that we keep our pets vaccinated for rabies,” Jollon said. “Keep wildlife, including bats, out of our homes. Seek help if we have evidence that bats have moved into our homes.”
She said SJBPH can help people safely capture bats without coming into barehanded contact with them.