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Driving me batty

By Kim Everson, DVM

My husband hurried into the house the other night slightly breathless. He had been outside closing up one of the outbuildings when a bat breezed in and out of the shed inches above his head. The stuff of vampire lore and Hollywood hype, bats have been giving humans the heebie geebies for millenia. Unfortunately, in recent years bats have also been giving humans the deadly rabies virus.


Bats are actually wonderful creatures. A small bat can capture more than 1,200 mosquitoes in a single hour! They are also sensitive to environmental changes and may act as a “canary in a coal mine” for ecologists. Cave bats (the type that like to roost in attics) are currently threatened by a strange fungal disease called white-nose syndrome. In 2010 they were extended protection from extermination under Wisconsin law.

Despite their virtues, I get a little freaked out about bats. Last spring my newly remodeled old farmhouse was haunted by a bat for several weeks. It tended to show up in the family room while the television was on. Once, while I was tracking it through the house in an effort to shoo it outside, it made a pit stop in a ceiling light fixture. Crouching on the floor and wearing a winter stocking cap (yes, I looked ridiculous), I gazed up in horror as the tiny winged mammal peered over the edge of the shade at me! Its beady eyes, pointy ears and toothy muzzle are imprinted in my memory. Before I could gather my wits it was off again, fluttering finally into an unfinished bedroom amidst construction materials. This scenario repeated over several evenings before I managed to open the front door during one of its sweeps through the living room. Although I never actually saw it leave, that was the last night it appeared.

Later that same summer my sister-in-law was similarly bedeviled by a trespassing bat. On several occasions she found herself trapped under her bed covers miserably text messaging me about her intruder. Finally, her fearless feline Izzie trapped the bat in the bathroom and that was the end of our bat saga. Or nearly so. Because bat droppings were discovered on the bedside table, my sister-in-law’s family doctor recommended rabies prophylaxis. This is the series of injections given to prevent the development of rabies in people exposed to potentially rabid animals. If we had kept and killed the bat, we could have sent it in to the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for testing to determine if rabies prophylaxis was necessary. Better safe than sorry. (The CDC provides good guidelines for whom should receive rabies prophylaxis.)

The first case of a successful rabies prophylaxis was in 1885. Louis Pasteur injected a child with recently invented rabies vaccine soon after the boy was mauled by a rabid dog. Amazingly, the child survived! Once signs of rabies appear the disease is always fatal.*

Bats have only recently been cited as a reservoir for rabies virus. Until the late 1980s, dogs were a major source of rabies in the U.S. Widespread mandatory vaccination programs have significantly decreased dog rabidity. Most human cases of rabies exposure in the U.S. are now linked to wildlife such as skunks and bats. Worldwide, however, dogs are linked to nearly 55,000 human rabies deaths a year. Efforts like World Rabies Day are underway to vaccinate as many canines as possible to reduce the incidence of human rabies.

Cat catches bat

Rules regarding rabies vaccination of cats varies by municipality. Many people feel their indoor cats do not need rabies vaccination. However, because you never know when your home might be visited by a bat intruder, and because indoor kitties like Izzie are ever so helpful in containing potentially rabid bats in the home, I strongly recommend vaccinating all feline friends–indoors or out. Rabies vaccination in pets is safe and inexpensive while the disease and prophylaxis in humans is certainly not!

* The miraculous recovery of the Fond du Lac teenager afflicted with rabies in 2004 should not give us a false sense of security. The therapy used in her case, the Milwaukee Protocol, has been used successfully in only two other cases of human rabies.

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