LITTLE ROCK – The report of a rabid bat found at Sandy Beach on Greers Ferry Lake in Heber Springs on Sunday, Aug. 18, has caused the Arkansas Department of Health to issue a warning about contact with bats.
If anyone at Sandy Beach, or any location, has handled a bat or been touched or bitten by a bat, they should contact their physician or the state public health veterinarian (501-280-4136) and the local health unit immediately.
The first sign of rabies in an animal is usually a change in behavior. Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no reason, or they may lose their fear of people and seem unnaturally friendly. Bats may be out in the daylight, which is an unusual behavior for them, or they may fly toward people or be unable to fly and be fluttering on the ground.
While less than 1 percent of bats that appear healthy are rabid, many more sick bats or those behaving unusually are actually rabid. Both people and pets are more likely to have contact with a sick bat than a healthy one. A bat on the ground is a sick bat and should be considered a potentially rabid bat. An animal with rabies usually dies within one week of demonstrating signs of rabies. Not all rabid animals act in these ways, however, so you should avoid all wild animals — especially skunks, bats and stray cats and dogs.
Susan Weinstein, DVM, state public health veterinarian, said, “Confirmed cases of rabies in bats are not uncommon in Arkansas. We generally have between five and 10 rabid bats each year in the state, so we want people to know that there are certain things they should be aware of to protect themselves and their families from disease.”
• Be sure your dogs, cats and ferrets are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations
• Do not feed, touch or adopt wild animals
• Keep family pets indoors at night
• Bat-proof your home or summer camp in the fall or winter (The majority of human rabies cases are caused by bat bites.)
• Encourage children to immediately tell an adult if any animal bites them
• Teach children to avoid wildlife, strays, and all other animals they do not know well
Report all animal bites or contact with wild animals to the local health unit. Do not let any animal escape that has possibly exposed someone to rabies. Depending on the species, an animal can be observed or tested for rabies in order to avoid the need for rabies treatment.
Rabies is a virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord and is a fatal disease. It is most often seen in wild animals such as skunks, bats and foxes. Cats, dogs, ferrets and livestock can also develop rabies, especially if they are not vaccinated. In 2012, Arkansas had a record year for rabies with 131 rabid animals, including 101 skunks, 22 bats, three cows, three dogs, one horse and one cat. So far in 2013, the increase in rabies is continuing as the state has had 111 rabies-positive animals: 97 skunks, eight bats, two dogs, two cats, one cow and one horse.
The rabies virus lives in the saliva (spit) and nervous tissues of infected animals and is spread when they bite or scratch. The virus also may be spread if saliva from an infected animal touches broken skin, open wounds or the lining of the mouth, eyes or nose.
“When people think about bats, they often imagine things that are not true,” Weinstein said.
“Bats are not blind. They aren’t rodents and they aren’t birds. They will not suck your blood since all bats in Arkansas just eat insects — and most bats do not have rabies. Because bats are mammals, they can develop rabies, but most do not have the disease, Weinstein said. “You can’t tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it; rabies can be confirmed only by having the animal tested in a laboratory. So be safe; never handle a bat.”
If you think you have become exposed to an animal with rabies wash your wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. Contact your physician and county health unit immediately and report the incident. The animal in question should be captured, if possible, without damaging its head or risking further exposure and tested for rabies.
Rabies in humans is rare in the United States. There are usually only one or two human cases per year. But the most common source of human rabies in the United States is bats.
From 1995 through 2011, 48 people in the US were infected with rabies. Of these, 35 or 73 percent were from bats.
All dogs and cats in Arkansas are required to be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian. This not only protects the animal, but also acts as a barrier between the wildlife exposures of rabies and people, as our pets are more likely to be exposed to a rabid bat directly than we are. Children especially should be reminded not to touch any wild animals and to stay away from stray pets.
For more information, call the your county Health Unit or Weinstein at (501) 280-4136.