Going batty about rabies

Bat concerns: The death of a Minnesota man from rabies this fall raises new concerns over the interactions between humans and bats.
Bat concerns: The death of a Minnesota man from rabies this fall raises new concerns over the interactions between humans and bats.Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
It was a Minnesota headline this week that made the nation-wide news…and just in time for Halloween.

A Minnesota man died last week from rabies after being bitten by a bat. It’s led to a lot of discussions about bats, rabies and how they all impact us. Last night during a training session here at the museum, the museum’s resident biologist made a sideline discussion on the topic, pointing out that many more bats than we’d ever imagine have rabies and that the only bats that are studied concerning rabies are those that have encounters with humans.

So let’s set the record straight on bats, rabies and how concerned we need to be on these issues. Here’s information direct from the Center for Disease Control.

In Minnesota, the most common animals to be carrying rabies are bats, skunks and fox. But rabies can be carried by a variety of mammals, including raccoons, coyotes and even dogs. Rabies is a viral disease that impacts our body’s central nervous system. Tens of thousands of people each year are treated for the condition, and usually a few die, primarily for not seeking treatment immediately after having been bitten by a rabid animal.

Now to the bat question. Some common misconceptions about bats: they’re blind, they want to suck your blood and they eat lots of mosquitoes. Bats do have low vision and use a radar-like system to sense objects, but they also can see. Bats are predators, but they prefer insects. But not insects as small as mosquitoes. They prefer bigger bugs like beetles. Think about, there’s not too much meat to munch on from a mosquito.

How do you know if a bat has rabies? The only way to find out is to have it tested in a laboratory. There are some clues that can help you be wary of a rabid bat: if it’s flying during the day, is found in an area you normally don’t find bats (including inside buildings) or is unable to fly. If it’s easy to approach, and therefore handle, there’s a stronger possibility that the bat is rabid.

What do you do if you’re bitten by a bat? After screaming and cursing you should wash the affected area immediately and get prompt medical attention. Bats do have extremely small teeth that may not leave a mark. It’s still best to have the area checked out by medical personnel even if it looks like your skin has not been punctured.

Some other misconceptions: people can’t get rabies from bat guano (feces), blood or urine. And you can’t get rabies from simply touching a bat.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

I used to volunteer on a treatment crew at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota--a job that brought me into frequent contact with injured or sick bats. A requirement of the job was that I be vaccinated against rabies.

I imagined some horrific series of painful shots in the belly. After all, isn't that what most of us were warned about as kids? But I got just two or three shots in the arm, plus an antibody check every year or two, and I was good to go.

So if you run into a sick or injured bat, and you have ANY reason whatsoever to think that it may have bitten you, go straight to the emergency room or your doctor's office, and get the preventive shots. It's no big deal, and it could save your life.

posted on Fri, 10/26/2007 - 9:59pm
Jason's picture
Jason says:

If this story is about microchiropterans, why include a picture of a megachiropteran? It's like including a picture of sea otters in a story about wolverines. Or a picture of a frugivore in an arcticle about insectivores. Oh wait...

posted on Sun, 10/28/2007 - 9:23pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

You're right: the bat shown in the photo with the story is a megachiropteran, more commonly known as a fruit bat. And there are no fruit bats in Minnesota.

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 5:32pm
Jean's picture
Jean says:

Several comments, 1) What is the source regarding the comment "many more bats than we’d ever imagine have rabies..."? In my twenty-plus years working almost daily with bats, I have yet to see any reliable, scientific data to support that statement. The most recent data (M. Tuttle, www.batcon.org) shows that approximately one-half of one percent of bats may be infected. 2) Bats are nocturnal, very shy and prefer to avoid contact with humans. It only makes sense that a sick animal would be more likely to be found by humans and therefore tested. 3) Note that according to the Minnesota Poison Control System • Hennepin County Medical Center website (www.mnpoison.org) in 1999 (last date for statistics on the site) 72 skunks were reported as rabid in MN, whereas 10 bats were reported during the same time. 4) Bats do not have low vision. They have excellent eyesite, can see color and, just as an aside, are extremely intellegent. They use echolocation when out at night or in a dark environment. If enough light is present, they will use their eyes. 5) The smaller species of bats in MN and WI eat mosquitos and moths. The mouth on a bat the size of a little brown or an eastern pipistrelle is much too small to take on most beetles that fly at night. They will eat small moths. Big brown bats, hoary, silver, and red bats can eat june bugs but large ones would be a challenge for them. 6) And finally, the photo you have posted is a Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus marianus marianus) found in Guam and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. It eats the fruits of breadfruit, papaya, fadang, figs, kafu, and talisai and the flowers of kapok, coconut, and gaogao.

I would hope that anyone working for the SMM who claims to be a professional and lectures to the general public would be sure to get the facts straight and work at debunking the myths rather than sensationalizing them. This "biologist" should spend some time studying this unique and wonderful creature. I am very disappointed in this posting. And for the record, I, also, have a degree in biology and have worked with bats for the past 20 years. I've made it a point to take the time to study these creatures so I understand them, not persecute them. We live in harmony.

posted on Wed, 10/31/2007 - 6:44pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

With some of the concerns raised by this post, I met recently with Dick Oehlenschlager, the museum's wildlife biologist who shared his comments about bats and rabies at the recent training session for Mississippi River Gallery staff. And here's what he had to share:

Dick is adamant about more bats being rabid than we know of. When the museum hosted a bat exhibit several years ago, former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told Dick that the exhibit understated the number of bats that are rabid. The only bats that are tested for rabies are those that come in contact with humans. We don't really know the rate for bats carrying rabies because they're not systemically studied for rabies like other types of rabid-potential animals (like fox or skunks).

Minnesota bats, Dick adds, might eat a few mosquitoes, but their main diet is moths and beetles.

Also, we've changed the photo in this post to show a bat that is native to the Minnesota environment -- one that is capable of carrying rabies.

In no way was he, or I, suggesting that people should be afraid of or antagonistic toward bats. The point of the post is that we all need to be very careful if we do come in contact with a bat and take medical precautions if there's a risk of having been bitten by a bat.

posted on Mon, 11/26/2007 - 2:26pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

how do you get rabies?

posted on Sat, 12/01/2007 - 10:46am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Can u get rabbies from touching a bat and how lond does it take the virus to die. We had a bat in our house and i have been scared of catching rabies ever since. I have 4 small children, and it worries me it happened back in october do I have to worry or not? Please help! Can u get it from salyva or touching, bat poo, and how long does it take for the disease or vrus to die and should I worry?

posted on Fri, 12/28/2007 - 11:15pm
betina Hogan's picture
betina Hogan says:

Hi, how did it go with that when you got the bat in your house. Same thing happened to me in about Aug 09 and now in Dec I see that I was supposed to capture the bat and have it tested, it was still alive and I think had got through the garage door was not trying to attact me or anything I didn't want to make it angry so I didn't chase it around and a few days later I found it in my watering can that I use to water my indoor plants he/she was wet as there still was some water in the watering can I let it out door and checked about 15 min later it was gone, later a few weeks it was back in my garage doing circles when I turned on the light as it has done. But when in Aug it was in my house it was very late at night and my small child was sleeping upstairs now since it so much later I am too so scared that she's got rabies or I, so pls let me know what did you guys end up doing? Are you all OK I hope, I am very worried and trying to be logic about it but since rabies can lay dorment so long I just don't know I am very scared, pls let me know what you guys ended up doing. Hugz hopes for the best.

posted on Wed, 12/23/2009 - 10:02pm
Zelch VonSletchelshtagalager's picture
Zelch VonSletchelshtagalager says:

I realize this is an extremely old threat. Dealing with bats in your home is not pleasant, but a little common sense can go a long way. If you wake up and find a bat in your room, send the animal in for testing to make sure it doesn't have rabies. If this is not possible, talk to your doctor about getting rabies shots, they are not painful. If you find a bat in a childs room or in the room of someone who is intoxicated or mentally ill, the same rules apply.

Any bat that enters your home should be captured and tested for rabies, talk to animal control regarding the best way to do this. Letting the animal out of your home is ok as long as you are absolutely certain it has not bitten anyone. The chance of contracting the disease is small, especially if you are not bitten but the problem is, rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Bat lovers that fail to warn people about the dangers of rabies are ignorant and selfish. They claim that only 1/2 of one percent of bats carry rabies, but this statistic is meaningless since there is no way for anyone to ascertain if an individual bat in your home is infected.

Always better to play it safe when it comes to rabies, it kills 55,000 people a year and although only a few of those deaths occur in the states, the ones that do are the result of bat bites. Bats have tiny teeth and bites often go undetected.

posted on Sat, 08/11/2012 - 11:58pm

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