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Uptick in bat activity brings warning of rabies threat

Bat activity has increased in recent weeks and the Erie County Department of Health reminds people to avoid any physical contact with bats, as they may carry the rabies virus.

Rabies is a virus that affects the nervous system in humans and other mammals. A person may contract it from an infected animal bite, scratch, or saliva exposure. Rabies-infected wildlife, such as bats and raccoons, carry rabies and transmit infection, without necessarily a bite.

“Even a minor scratch or simply touching an infected animal may be enough to transmit the rabies virus from animal to human,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said in a news release. “Bat bites may not be noticed because bat teeth are very tiny and razor sharp and may be no larger than a needle prick. Any direct contact with a bat or other potentially rabies infected wildlife should be considered a possible rabies exposure. ... Since rabies is nearly always fatal, it is important to take aggressive precautions to prevent the development of disease.”

A healthy bat typically avoids any contact with humans or other animals and will not be found resting on the ground. Rabid bats frequently lose their ability to fly, and may be found on the ground or in water, making them more likely to come into contact with people or pets. Bats with rabies are often disoriented, increasing the likelihood that they end up inside a dwelling by accident.

If you find yourself in close proximity to a bat, dead or alive, do not touch, hit or destroy it, so the bat’s brain can be preserved for rabies virus testing. Those who wake up to find a bat in the room, or a bat in the room of an unattended small child, an intoxicated or mentally incapacitated person, or a family pet, the possibility of a bat bite, scratch – or direct contact – may have occurred.

“Bats should be captured if there has been direct contact with a person or pet, or if the bat was found in the vicinity of someone who might have been exposed. Once the bat is captured, they may need to be tested for rabies infection,” said Peter Tripi, senior public health sanitarian. “If the bat is available for testing and test results are negative, preventive treatment will not be needed. “Do not release a live bat or throw out a dead bat that has bitten or scratched, or had direct contact with a person or pet,” unless health officials have told you testing isn’t needed.

Wear thick gloves to pick up a dead or injured bat, or use a shovel or dust pan. If a live bat lands, place an empty can or wastebasket over the bat and slide cardboard underneath to contain the bat. Use heavy gloves (like leather work gloves) and place the bat in a sealed can or jar, or plastic bag within another heavy-weight plastic bag. For a live bat, punch small holes (less than ½-inch in diameter) in the container(s) for the bat to breathe. Place the container in a quiet area away from heavy human traffic. Do not refrigerate, freeze or kill a live bat.

Dead bats that will be sent to a laboratory for testing should be refrigerated, not frozen, until the laboratory can begin testing. Do not refrigerate, freeze or kill a live bat.

If your pet is involved with a suspected rabid animal, do not handle the pet with bare hands following the incident. There is a possibility to get the pet’s saliva on your hands. Wait a few hours, and then bathe the animal while wearing protective gloves. All pets should be vaccinated against rabies, including both indoor and outdoor cats, plus any other animals that live on your property, such as barn cats or feral cats in trap and release programs.

For more information, call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice, such as the Wildlife Department of the SPCA serving Erie County at 875-7360 or the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Regional Wildlife office to locate a wildlife rehabilitator in your area (851-7010).

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