Rabies – Still Deadly – Part 2

Rabies is generally considered a wildlife disease, predominantly in raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and bats. However, humans and domestic mammals can also be infected, including horses and cows.

A rabid wild animal doesn’t necessarily become aggressive. It often simply becomes lethargic, unresponsive, and crawls away to die. A rabid wild animal may not flee at your approach as it would normally. This is a warning sign. Do not handle animals that appear to be acting strangely. Frankly, it’s not a good idea to handle wildlife under any conditions.

Rabies in foxes, raccoons, and coyotes has become a serious problem in many states, including Texas. Free-roaming unvaccinated domestic cats and dogs coming in contact with these rabid wild animals can become ill and transfer rabies to their owners and/or other pets.

There is an oral rabies vaccine packaged in tasty bait pellets that can be air-dropped into affected areas to immunize some wild animals. These “bombing raids” have proven to be very effective in controlling rabies in wildlife populations across the United States and parts of Canada. In some areas of Texas, the vaccine pellets are dropped annually into high-risk areas.

Bats and skunks are the most likely carriers of rabies. But don’t get too worked up. There are multi-millions of bats in Texas and most are not only healthy, they are fascinating. In Austin, the Congress Avenue Bridge houses about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that each evening spiral into the sky in a flapping black cloud. So impressive is the daily flight, it is estimated that 100,000 tourists go to watch the spectacle each year and contribute about $10 million dollars to the local economy. Each evening, experts say the bats dine on 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects! So, bats definitely contribute to pest control. Of course, they also produce huge quantities of bat droppings, called guano, under the bridge.

Bats are mammals that look quite a bit like leather-winged mice, and they occasionally get into buildings and homes through very small openings. Herein lies a potential problem. Sometimes people are bitten by a bat, either as it panics when they try to drive it out, or on purpose in the case of a rabid bat. A bat has extremely tiny teeth and its bite may not be noticed, especially by a sleeping person. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that “if a bat has been found in a room where people have been sleeping; if an adult finds a bat in the room with a previously unattended child; or a bat is found in the presence of a mentally disabled or intoxicated person, you must assume that an exposure has occurred” and medical advice should be sought immediately. Your physician may recommend post-exposure immunization.

A 46-year-old Alexandria, Minnesota man’s death from rabies on October 20, 2007 emphasizes the importance of being proactive. He was stacking wood when he “came in contact” with a bat. He didn’t realize he’d been bitten since there was no apparent bite marks or blood. He felt only a pinprick on his hand and did not seek medical care. By the time his developing symptoms were traced to the bat encounter, it was too late. After developing a tingling in his hand, he soon lost his ability to talk and move, and by mid-October, he was in a deep coma and died.

Nevertheless, let me say again, most bats are not rabid, and they perform a great service in insect control. Some people build and mount artificial bat boxes to provide roosting locations for bats. These interesting creatures, with their ultrasonic sonar targeting systems, are unfortunately often maligned as evil pests. Bat Conservation International is striving to educate people about these threatened animals. If you’d like to read more about them go to www.batcon.org for a revealing source of information.

Be aware. You can help control rabies. All domestic cats and dogs should receive rabies vaccine regularly. If yours hasn’t gotten them, get it done. And be sure your pet’s immunizations, for not only rabies but also other diseases, are kept up to date.

Then, enjoy the glorious fall weather, bats and all. Your chances of encountering a rabid animal are miniscule. But if you are bitten or have questionable contact with a wild creature, see a doctor immediately!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.