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October 27, 2011

Bats, Rabies, and Public Health

What disease risks do bats pose for humans?

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Once widely feared and maligned, bats are now recognized for the many environmental benefits they bring. John Griffin/The HSUS

  • Just because a bat shows his teeth it does not mean he is rabid. iStockphoto.com

Bats, like any other mammal, can carry rabies, but the incidence of rabies in bat populations is extremely low.

Most human exposures occur when someone accidentally or carelessly handles a bat or is unaware they have been bitten.

The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends capturing and testing any bat found in a room with a sleeping person. This means the bat will be killed to perform the test.

This recommendation is made as a precaution, because people, children and the elderly especially, may be unaware of a bite from tiny bat teeth.

Important: Be especially careful not to pick up a bat or take a bat from a pet's mouth with bare hands.

In any situation of potential rabies exposure, immediately consult your physician and local health authorities.

Is That Bat Rabid?

If you find a bat on the ground outside, it doesn’t mean the bat is rabid. She may be ill, temporarily stunned from flying into a window, or—if the weather is colder—she may be too chilled to fly.

Bats generally aren’t aggressive and don’t bite unless provoked, although any bat may bite in self-defense. If handled most bats will bite or try to bite defending themselves.

Never handle a bat barehanded! If you decide to contain the bat, use sturdy gloves and put the bat in a non-metallic container with air holes.

Call your local animal control agency or a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance.

Histoplasmosis

Histoplasmosis is an illness, primarily affecting the lungs, that is caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. The fungus is seen more commonly in the eastern and central states and far less so in the west. 

Bat droppings that have accumulated over a prolonged period provide a good environment for the fungus to grow.

People diagnosed with this respiratory disease typically work where bird or bat droppings accumulated (poultry farmers, contractors clearing old buildings) or explore caves where bats lived rather than merely live near bats.

More resources

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