Bats cause most rabies deaths

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

bats carry rabies

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to the CDC, 7 in 10 Americans who die from rabies were infected by bats, even though bats make up just one-third of the 5,000 rabies-infected animals reported in the U.S. each year
  • The only way to confirm if a bat has rabies is via laboratory testing; you can’t spot a rabid bat just by looking at it
  • If a bat is active during the day (bats are normally nocturnal), unable to fly or able to be approached and captured, there’s a chance it could be sick with rabies
  • In a survey of 19 rabies cases in Americans from 1997 to 2006, 17 were associated with bats; of these, 14 of the patients had known encounters with bats, including the bat landing on them in their home in four cases and one case where a person was woken up by a bat biting him in his home
  • Bats bring immeasurable benefits to the environment via pest control, pollination and seed dispersal and needn’t be feared, but if you find a bat in your home, contact a professional about humane removal

Prior to 1960, most cases of rabies in the U.S. were caused by rabid dogs, but this has changed dramatically in recent decades. From 1991 to 2018, there were just two cases of rabies linked to U.S. dogs, and another 19 cases linked to dogs encountered by Americans outside the U.S.1 The animal linked to the most rabies cases during that timeframe was, instead, bats, which caused 51 cases.

While rabies is rare in the U.S., affecting just one to three people a year (down from 30 to 50 in the 1940s), the U.S. CDC released a report warning that bats are the greatest rabies threat to humans, possibly because many people may not be aware that such a risk exists.2

Bats cause 7 in 10 rabies deaths

According to the CDC, 7 in 10 Americans who die from rabies were infected by bats, even though bats make up just one-third of the 5,000 rabies-infected animals reported in the U.S. each year. Dogs, in comparison, make up just 1% of the rabid animals reported annually.3

Very few people develop rabies in the U.S., in part because most who are potentially exposed to a rabid animal receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for rabies prevention. The CDC states that someone is treated for possible rabies exposure every 10 minutes in the U.S., amounting to about 55,000 Americans receiving PEP each year.

Further, the CDC noted that it and its health partners respond to 175 mass bat exposures annually, which include events in which more than 10 people are exposed to bats that could have rabies. Because rabies is typically fatal without preventive treatment, the CDC recommends taking serious precautions if you’ve been in contact with bats:4

“Bats carry rabies virus in every U.S. state except Hawaii, and can spread the virus year-round. However, anecdotal case reports suggest that people may not be fully aware that bats pose a rabies risk — and so they may not seek life-saving rabies PEP if they are bitten or scratched by a bat.

If people wake up with a bat in the room, CDC recommends that they assume they may have been exposed to rabies and see a healthcare provider right away to determine if they need to receive PEP for rabies.”

How to tell if a bat has rabies

The only way to confirm if a bat has rabies is via laboratory testing; you can’t spot a rabid bat just by looking at it. That being said, if a bat is active during the day (bats are normally nocturnal), unable to fly or able to be approached and captured, there’s a chance it could be sick with rabies.

In a survey of 19 rabies cases in Americans from 1997 to 2006, 17 were associated with bats. Of these, 14 of the patients had known encounters with bats, including the bat landing on them in their home in four cases and one case where a person was woken up by a bat biting him in his home. The CDC reported:5

“One person was reportedly bitten by a bat from outdoors while he was exiting from his residence. Six people had a history of handling a bat while removing it from their home.

One person was bitten by a bat while releasing it outdoors after finding it on the floor inside a building. One person picked up and tried to care for a sick bat found on the ground outdoors. Three men ages 20, 29 and 64 had no reported encounters with bats but died of bat-associated rabies viruses.”

There were also two cases reported in children, including a 4-year-old who died from rabies weeks after a bat was found on the floor of his bedroom. A 10-year-old also developed rabies several months after removing a bat from his bedroom.

Both scratches and bites from bats can transmit rabies, even if they don’t appear to be serious. A bat bite can be smaller than a pencil eraser, but should still be evaluated by a doctor right away to determine if PEP is needed to prevent rabies infection.6 If you wake up to find a bat in your bedroom or home, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor about PEP just in case you were exposed.

Most importantly, if you find a bat in your home call a wildlife removal service that can humanely and safely remove the bat from your home. If you live in an area without animal control services, sequester your pets in a safe room and open doors and windows to allow the bat to exit on its own. Remember, most bats are not rabid and just need to find a way out of your home (and isn’t looking for conflict while trying to navigate an exit back outside).

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Bats shouldn’t be feared and need all the help they can get

While bats are the leading source of rabies deaths in the U.S., rabies is very rare, and getting bitten by a bat with rabies is even rarer. Among bats submitted for rabies testing to the CDC, only 6% had the disease.7 Further, you can’t get rabies from bats flying in the distance or via contact with bat guano (poop), blood or urine. Touching a bat’s fur also can’t give you rabies.

It’s a good idea to keep bats out of your home and avoid handling any bats you encounter in the wild, but keep in mind that bats bring immeasurable benefits to the environment, not the least of which is eating copious amounts of mosquitoes. They also act as pollinators, furthering the growth of foods like bananas, peaches, cloves and carob, and seed dispersers. Fruit bats, for instance, which often fly great distances at night, scatter seeds in their guano that helps to reseed forests.8

Bat populations are in decline, unfortunately, so they can use all the help they can get. You can encourage natural bat habitats around your home by reducing outdoor lighting, minimizing tree clearing and protecting streams and wetlands, while installing a bat house in a spot high off the ground (12 to 20 feet up is ideal) and in direct sunlight for six to eight hours a day.9

As for fears about rabies, this is easily addressed just by avoiding close contact with these animals. As Bat Conservation International explains:10

“Bats, like other mammals, can be infected with the rabies virus and some of them are. But the vast majority of bats are not infected. However, a bat that can be easily approached by humans is likely to be sick and may bite if handled. Simply do not touch or handle a bat or any other wild animal and there is little chance of being bitten. Teach children to never handle any wild animal.”