The Ministry of Health reminds residents to keep pets up to date with vaccinations, and to avoid contact with wild animals
San Juan Basin Public Health has identified a second case of rabies in a bat population in La Plata County. Although the chance that any particular bat will carry rabies is low, it is important to keep pet vaccinations up to date and to report abnormal behavior of wild animals.
The county’s relatively low rate of confirmed rabies cases in bats tracks case rates from previous years, but Lianne Gulon, director of SJBPH, said it’s still important to avoid contact with wild animals, report unconventional animal behavior and keep pets vaccinated. Even today.
“When bats are sick they behave differently than healthy bats and do normal things,” she said.
She said it’s not unusual for people to catch bats that are sick or behaving abnormally and turn them over to the Health Department for testing. But the number of bats tested could skew the perception of the prevalence of rabies among the bat population.
“We often have bats with rabies,” she said. “But the percentage of bats infected with rabies at any one time is very low.”
She said bats play an important role in the ecosystem. They eat other disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes that can spread West Nile virus. The healthy population of bats plays a role in keeping humans healthy as well.
She said the most common way of contracting rabies in the United States is through infected bats. Skunks, foxes, and raccoons can also contract and spread disease, but mostly, it is spread by bats.
That’s why it’s important for the public to understand the risks associated with the rabies virus, she said.
Risks, treatment and preventive measures
Rabies is an incredibly serious disease with a mortality rate of over 99% in cases after the onset of symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number one risk of rabies infection, Golon said, is from the bite of an infected bat that breaks the skin. She said bat bites can be “very small and hard to see”.
If, for some reason, someone makes direct contact with a bat, the bat should be captured and euthanized, and the person will likely begin rabies treatment.
People should use heavy gloves if they try to catch a bat, or they can use a box or bowl. But they should not touch the bat with their hands.
Megan Graham, a spokeswoman for the SJBPH, said a bite from a rabies bat does not mean imminent death if treatment is urgently needed.
“Once you’ve been bitten and infected,[rabies]moves relatively slowly higher up in your brain. When you start to have symptoms death is almost certain,” she said.
If someone wakes up with a bat in the house, and it is not known whether the bat has bitten someone in the house, the Department of Health recommends that the animal be reported. An evaluation will be conducted and possibly followed by a recommendation for rabies prevention, Gulon said.
When it comes to protecting pets from rabies, the SJBPH recommends keeping pet food indoors, avoiding handling sick or orphaned animals, restricting dogs to walks, supervising them in backyards when possible, and keeping cats indoors at night.
Livestock should be vaccinated with rabies vaccines for large animals annually, according to a press release from the Department of Health. All vaccinations for pets and livestock must be performed by a licensed veterinarian.
“It is important that we keep our pets vaccinated against rabies,” Golon said. “Keep wildlife, including bats, out of our homes. Seek help if we have evidence of bats moving into our homes.”
She said SJBPH can help people safely capture bats without contacting them naked.