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September 03, 2009

Cats, Bats, and Rabies

Awhile back, one of our client's cat brought home a bat, and she called me asking what they should do with the bat and if they should be worried about rabies. The cat, bat, and children were all in the back yard together, and whether or not the children touched the bat was unlikely, but uncertain. We get asked these questions often enough that I decided to write a post about cats, bats, and rabies and try to address these questions to the best of my ability.

1. What should you do if your pet catches a bat?

DO NOT touch the bat barehanded! This is very important. Put on thick leather gloves and put the bat in a container that can be disposed of. If you think any person may have been exposed to the bat --touched or bitten -- phone your county Health Department and tell them the situation, then phone your physician as well. If only your pet has been exposed to the bat, phone your veterinarian. The bat will need to be sent in to a laboratory for rabies testing. Most public health departments will send the bat off for testing (for free) if a human has been exposed, but not if only your pet has been exposed. If your pet has been exposed, the bat should still be sent off, but at your expense (around $40). It is important to know if the bat is infected with rabies or not.

2. What should you do if you simply find a bat laying in your yard or in your house in broad daylight?
The same applies as above. DO NOT touch it with your bare hands. If it is outside, just let it be and see if after 10 minutes or so it has gone elsewhere. The problem lies in the fact that most bats that are found in broad daylight are ill, and some of them may be ill with rabies. If the bat is still there and you have children or animals, it is best to dispose of the bat as indicated above. You may want to call your veterinarian or public health official first.

3. What is the big deal with rabies anyway?
Rabies is a virus that is spread via saliva from the bite of a rabid animal. The virus travels through the nervous system, and once it reaches the brain it is deadly. The incubation period for rabies is quite variable among mammals and depends partly on how far the virus has to travel before it reaches the brain. So for example, if a rabid dog bit your face or a bat bit your cat's face, the virus wouldn't have very far to travel before it reached the brain. However, if you were bitten on the toe, the virus would have a long way to travel via the peripheral nerves to the brain. Incubation periods in dogs and cats range from 2 weeks to 6 months (but average 3-6 weeks). In the U.S. rabies is not the huge problem that it is in many parts of the world, but still-- infection with rabies without treatment is deadly --that's the BIG deal.

Image of dog with "furious" rabies

4. What animals can carry rabies?
Any warm-blooded animal can be infected with the rabies virus and thus spread it. In our area of the country we have no terrestrial rabies -- that is to say, no animals that live on the ground are endemic for rabies. In the northwest, our primary source of rabies is bats, and the rabies viruses isolated from infected terrestrial animals have all been found to have originated from bats. In the southwest and mid-west the main sources of rabies is skunk and fox, and in the east and northeast the main source is raccoons.

5. What are the symptoms you might see if your pet was infected with rabies?
The first stage of the disease is the "prodromal phase". In this phase your pet may show anxiety, nervousness, or apprehension and may do a lot of hiding. A fever may be noted especially in cats. Your pet may be irritable and try to bite, or it may be docile and friendly if it is normally aggressive. The second stage is the "furious phase". In this phase your pet may be hypersensitive to auditory and visual stimuli, may become restless and roam more, and may be irritable and vicious. The final stage is the "dumb or paralytic phase". In this phase the nerves that go the head and throat are affected causing the jaw to drop and the animal to be unable to swallow -- thus the stereotypical drooling and foaming. The animal may be thirsty but unable to drink, that is why another term for rabies is hydrophobia. An animal may exhibit some or all of these symptoms. Death is inevitable once symptoms are observed. A VERY few people have survived, and there are anecdotal accounts of dogs surviving.

Image of dogs with "dumb" rabies

6. How is rabies diagnosed?
The only way that we have of diagnosing rabies at this point is submission of brain tissue for microscopic inspection, so unfortunately euthanasia is a must for diagnosis.

7. Are all bats infected with rabies?

No, not all bats are infected with rabies. In fact, only about 10% of bats that are submitted for rabies testing are positive. That means that the percentage of rabies positive bats in the wild is probably much less, because normally you wouldn't find a bat just hanging around where you or your pet could catch it unless it were sick (possibly with rabies). However, if it was me or my child, I would not play the guessing game. I would presume a bat was rabies positive until proven otherwise.

8. What is the best way to prevent rabies infection?
Vaccination. Vaccination of pets is the only way you can help to prevent your exposure to rabies. That and steering clear of any wild animals that are acting suspiciously. Dog and cat vaccination protocols are strictly regulated: First vaccine at or after 16 weeks followed by a booster at one year. Then another booster every three years (at least in our good state of Washington). You should have your cat and dog vaccinated for rabies even if it is strictly indoors, because bats can come into a house through the smallest opening. Also, if your dog were to ever bite a person (heaven forbid), up-to-date rabies vaccination will be important to help keep your pet from being euthanized. There are also a rabies vaccine for people -- veterinarians are required to be vaccinated against rabies since they may be more likely to come in contact with a rabid animal than the average person.

The bottom line is: Educate your children not to touch a bat if they (or their pet) finds one and vaccinate your pets against rabies. Just last year a young boy and his dog were found playing with a bat in northern Whitman County. Luckily someone found them and captured the bat for testing because the bat was found to be positive for rabies. The little boy had to go through prophylactic treatment for rabies infection and the unvaccinated dog was euthanized.

One more bottom line: If there is any doubt as to whether a human has been exposed to a bat bite, err on the side of caution. Another tragic story from Washington State occurred about 15 years ago when a bat was found in the room of a young girl who was sleeping. No bite wounds were found on the girl so no further medical attention was sought. Unfortunately, about a month later the little girl died from rabies. The bat was dug up from the backyard and was positive for rabies. So sad.

Here is a collection of helpful links where you can learn more about bats, rabies, and such.
Living with Bats
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association --Rabies Survey 2007
CDC- Bats and Rabies
Whitman County Department of Public Health

(images courtesy of http://www.vaccineinformation.org/rabies/photos.asp)