Three rabid bats have been found in the Coeur d’Alene area in recent weeks – an unusually high number so soon after the mammals have emerged from hibernation.
“Generally we only see maybe three the whole year, sometimes not even that,” said Dave Hylsky, an epidemiologist with Panhandle Health District.
The cluster of rabies cases has prompted health officials to remind people not to handle bats or any wild animals, and to make sure their pets’ rabies vaccinations are up to date. Dogs, cats and ferrets should be vaccinated for rabies, as should horses, sheep and cattle, veterinarians say.
“If the bat’s sick or out lying on the ground, you don’t want kids running up and touching it, which we’ve had,” Hylsky said.
Pets and other mammals can get exposed to the virus when they play with sick bats that no longer fly normally.
“Dogs and cats really can’t catch bats, so if they do come in contact with them, there’s probably something wrong with that bat, which is a concern,” Hylsky said.
He said he isn’t sure why three rabid bats would be found in such a short period.
“It might just be cyclic,” he said. “I guess the answer is we really don’t know. We can’t say for sure if there’s like one colony of bats that are rabid or something like that. You can just have a couple (rabid) bats in the whole colony.”
No bats or other animals have tested positive for rabies in Spokane County since 2007, said Steve Main, environmental health specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District. In all of Washington, nine rabid bats were identified in 2012 and 11 in 2011.
The latest rabid bat in Kootenai County was caught last week in Coeur d’Alene by a family’s dog. No people were directly exposed to it, officials said, and the dog had been vaccinated and was re-vaccinated after coming in contact with the bat. The dog will remain under watch at home for several weeks.
Another bat in Coeur d’Alene and one in Spirit Lake also tested positive for rabies in the past month. One exposed a pet cat, which also is under watch. The other bat possibly exposed three people inside their home while they were sleeping.
“They woke up in their house and they found the bat on the floor in the hallway right outside their bedroom,” Hylsky said. “And unfortunately a bat bite can be so light, their teeth are so fine, that a bat can actually bite you when you’re asleep and you might not even know it.”
As a precaution, the three people underwent a series of five shots each in their shoulders to protect them from rabies.
“It’s a human health issue for sure. We just want to stop it at this stage instead of having a family pet come down with rabies,” Hylsky said.
Officials have seen no evidence that rabies has spread to other species in the Inland Northwest, but Montana has confirmed the virus in skunks and raccoons. “We’re lucky so far it’s just been in the bats,” Hylsky said.
Rabies in pets and livestock happens so infrequently that owners may let their guard down about vaccinations, said Aprill Sherman, a veterinarian at Rathdrum Animal Clinic.
“In this area I think people have become a little lax because we haven’t had any positive rabies cases for awhile,” Sherman said. “We should not become complacent about rabies in this area.”
Bats play a beneficial role in the environment, dispensing seeds, pollinating plants and eating insects. But about 5 percent of the bats tested in this area carry the rabies virus.
The virus most often is transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal – typically just bats in this part of the country, and also raccoons, skunks and foxes in other regions of the U.S.
Rabies is fatal unless treated, but human cases are now quite rare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In 2010, 48 states and Puerto Rico reported 6,153 cases of rabies in animals and two human cases to the CDC. More than 90 percent of animal cases occur in wildlife.