Facts About Rabies
Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that can infect all warm-blooded animals, including man. This means it can infect you!
The rabies virus lives in the saliva of rabid animals. It can be transmitted through a bite or by introducing infected saliva into a wound or in the eye or mouth.
Only mammals get rabies; birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians do not. Skunks, bats, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats, and some farm animals are most likely to get rabies. Rabbits, opossums, squirrels, rats and mice seldom get it.
Rabies is widespread in the U.S. and in most parts of the world. In some areas of the U.S. rabies is more prevalent in certain kinds of animals than in others. Connecticut has always had cases of animal rabies. Although they have been confined to bats and foxes for many years, rabies can spill over to other animals at any time.
Improved rabies vaccination programs and increased public education have decreased the number of cases among humans.
But an epidemic of raccoon rabies in the mid-Atlantic states has reached Connecticut. We expect to see cases in non-raccoon species, including dogs and cats for the first time in decades.
Although rabies in raccoons and other wildlife cannot be prevented, you can protect yourself and others by vaccinating your dogs and cats. In this way, we establish a buffer zone between wildlife and humans.
The Rabies Law and Its Affect on You
The Connecticut Legislature passed a bill that requires all dog and cat owners to vaccinate their pets against rabies and to keep these shots up to date. This law took effect April 12, 1991, and owners are required to show proof of current rabies vaccination in order to license their dogs.
The law also allows municipalities to sponsor annual, low cost rabies vaccine clinics where both dogs and cats may be vaccinated.
Cats are not required to be licensed, but are required to be vaccinated.
Information furnished by the Pet Educational and Trade Society of Connecticut in cooperation with the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association
Bats rank third in number of rabies cases in the United States, behind raccoons and skunks.
Are rabid bats a threat to human health?
Yes. Since 1980, more people in U.S. have been infected with a bat rabies strain than any other strain of rabies. The only human rabies death in Connecticut over the past 60 years was a result of exposure to a bat rabies virus. In Connecticut, since 1980, an average of seven bats per year have tested positive for rabies and all counties have been affected.
How common is rabies among bats?
Bats rabies has always occurred at low levels within bat populations and researchers estimate that less than 1% of all bats are rabid. Most bats are healthy and are beneficial in controlling insect pests.
How is rabies transmitted by bats?
The rabies virus is found in the saliva of an infected bat. The virus can be transmitted when a rabid bat bites or scratches another animal or person. The virus may also be transmitted if the infected bat’s saliva gets into an open wound, or comes in contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth.
How do you know if a bat is rabid?
There is no sure way to tell if a bat is rabid without having it tested at a laboratory. There are some signs of abnormal behavior that may indicate a bat is rabid. This would include outdoor activity during daylight hours, a bat found on the ground and paralyzed or unable to fly, or a bat that bites a person or animal. It is important to note that not all rabid bats show abnormal behavior, but those that do are more likely to have rabies. A rabid bat will usually die within a few days after showing signs of the disease. Tests performed on the bat’s brain will confirm rabies. If one rabid bat is found in a colony, it does not mean the entire colony is infected.
What should you do if you think you may have been in contact with a rabid bat?
Rabid bats rarely attack humans, however, any contact with a bat should be evaluated by health authorities. Because the size of bites or scratches from bats may be very small, individuals may not recognize that an exposure has occurred. Thus, bat bites may go unnoticed, or be mistaken for an insect bite or sting. Postexposure treatment should be given in any situation where a bat is physically present and a bite, or any other contact, cannot be ruled out (e.g., waking up and finding a bat in the same room). This is particularly important when children are involved, and may not be able to tell an adult reliably what happened, or when no witnesses are available.
If the bat is captured and tested, treatment for rabies may be delayed until the test results are known. Try to capture the bat without damaging its head or getting bitten or scratched. Confine the bat in one room and wait for it to land. Wearing heavy gloves, cover it with a coffee can or similar container than slide a piece of cardboard under the can to capture the bat. Report the incident immediately to your local health department to arrange for laboratory testing of the bat.
If a bat bite or scratch cannot be ruled out and the test results are positive for rabies, or if the bat is unsuitable for testing, or the bat cannot be captured, post exposure treatment should be administered as soon as possible.
Is rabies always fatal?
Once symptoms occur, rabies is almost always fatal. The incubation period, which is the period of time between exposure and onset of disease, ranges from 2 weeks to many months. Once symptoms develop, treatment is ineffective. Prompt treatment following contact with the saliva of a rabid animal can prevent rabies in humans.
What is the treatment for exposure to rabies?
All treatment should begin with immediate and thorough cleansing of all wounds with soap and water. This is followed by a total of six shots over a period of 28 days. Most of these shots will be given into the muscle of the arm. However, on the first day of treatment the patient will also receive a shot of immune globulin. Half of the immune globulin will be injected around the site of the wound and the other half into the buttock muscles. The treatment is safe and only rarely has side effects, and is 100% effective if administered properly.
Can a person be vaccinated against rabies before exposure?
Yes. Rabies pre-exposure vaccination should be considered for wildlife biologists, bat researchers, veterinarians, licensed wildlife rehabilitators, nuisance wildlife control specialists, taxidermists and others who handle wildlife regularly. Three injections of rabies vaccine are given over one month.
Where do most bats roost in a house?
Bats may roost in a house during spring and summer in attics, behind shutters, in the eaves or other sheltered areas (barns, garages, etc.). Bats will leave a roost at dusk to feed on flying insects, and return to the roost during the night or early morning. In the fall, virtually all these bats leave the roost to hibernate in caves for the winter.
What can be done to keep bats out of a home or other building?
Using poisons to control bats in buildings is not an environmentally sound, humane, or permanent solution to the problem. Certain chemicals or pesticides can create a risk of long-term toxic exposure to humans and pets. Chemicals or pesticides can also cause sick or dying bats to be grounded in the community, further increasing the chance of contact with people and domestic animals. Bats seen foraging on summer evenings, or roosting in unoccupied buildings, should be observed from a distance and not disturbed.
Bats should be kept out of places with a high possibility of contact with humans or pets (for example, schools, hospitals, prisons, homes) by closing or covering openings that allow entry to the roost (Figure 1). To find these openings, watch bats enter or leave the building at dusk or just before dawn. “Bat proof” such openings by installing polypropylene bird netting, fly screening, sheet metal, wood or various caulking compounds.
Keep in mind that some bats can pass through crevices as thin as a pencil. Before bat proofing, make sure there are no bats in the roost. The best time to bat proof is late fall through winter when bats are hibernating in caves. Bat proofing should not be done from June through mid-August as it may trap flightless young bats inside the roost. When bat proofing before June or after mid-August, all openings except one or two major exits may be closed in advance, and the last opening sealed while the animals are away. One-way bat doors can also be installed over the remaining opening(s), allowing bats to exit but not re-enter. These bat “excluders” can be purchased at retail stores or easily constructed using plastic bird netting material. To discourage roosting behind shutters, space them an inch or more from the wall to allow more light and ventilation. Old roofing materials may need replacing, and spaces between chimneys and exterior walls may need to be filled as well.
How can a bat already in a building be removed?
If you are certain that no person or pet has had direct contact with the bat, it can be released outdoors, away from populated areas, preferably after dark. To remove a bat from a living area, try to confine it in one room. Open windows, turn off the lights and allow the bat to leave on its own. If the bat does not leave, capture the bat as previously described.
How can animals be protected from rabies?
Connecticut law requires that dogs and cats have up-to-date rabies vaccinations and these vaccinations are available through a licensed veterinarian. The initial vaccination should be done when the animal is three months old. The animal must be revaccinated one year later, and may receive three year shots after that. Because cats often capture bats, even inside homes, it is particularly important to vaccinate all cats, even indoor cats (cats test positive for rabies more often than dogs). Bats may roost in barns or sheds. Certain livestock kept in these buildings can also be protected by up-to-date rabies vaccinations.
What if a pet is bitten by a bat?
Whenever a dog, cat, or other domestic animal is bitten by or comes into contact with a bat, capture the bat if possible without risking additional exposure. Immediately contact the local health department or animal control officer to notify them of the exposure and to have the bat tested for rabies.
If the animal has an up-to-date rabies vaccination and the bat tests positive for the rabies virus or cannot be tested, the animal must be given a rabies booster vaccination within five days and should be strictly confined for three months.
If an unvaccinated animal has direct contact with a confirmed rabid bat, it is recommended that the animal be euthanized. If the owner is unwilling to euthanize the animal, it must be quarantined for six months.
What help is available?
Additional information about bats and their control can be obtained by contacting the Department of Environmental Protection, Non-harvested Wildlife Program at (860) 675-8130.
For rabies-related problems or questions and to report a suspected rabies exposure, call your local health department, your physician, or the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Epidemiology Section at (860) 566-5058.
It is important that everyone, especially children, be educated about the importance of avoiding contact with wild animals, including bats, and the need to seek medical advice quickly after a possible rabies exposure.
Connecticut Department of Public Health
150 Washington Street
Hartford, CT 06106
* Adapted from a pamphlet produced by the New York Department of Health