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Bat Bites and Rabies

What’s the Problem?

Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease of mammals that is most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, such as a bat, raccoon, skunk, fox, dog, or cat. (Twice as many cats are diagnosed with rabies as dogs, because cats are not vaccinated as regularly as dogs.) Early symptoms include fever, headache and general malaise. As the disease progresses, the following neurological symptoms may appear: insomnia, anxiety, confusion, agitation, difficulty swallowing, hallucinations, excessive salivation, paralysis, hydrophobia (fear of water), or agitated behavior. Patients may also experience classic symptoms of pain or numbness at the site of the bite.

Who’s at Risk?

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Anyone who comes in contact with a bat is potentially at risk for rabies. Bats roost in urban and rural areas—attics, abandoned buildings, sheds or barns, trees and even on the ground.

Since 1980, 22 of 25 human rabies cases acquired in the United States were caused by a rabies virus identical to the rabies virus from bats. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 to 40,000 people per year in the United States receive rabies vaccine after a possible exposure.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. Rabies is always fatal once symptoms appear, but it is 100% preventable when rabies vaccine is given promptly and appropriately after a suspected exposure.

Bat bites are difficult to see and may not be felt. As a result, some people may not realize they have been bitten and therefore not seek medical treatment. Furthermore, because many people do not know that bats can carry rabies, they may delay seeking medical care until symptoms appear several weeks or months later. At that point, it’s too late—there is no chance for survival.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM viewers that bats (as well as other wild and domestic animals) can carry rabies. Do not allow bats or any other wild animal in your home.
  • TEACHchildren never to handle or pet unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly. Do not handle any bat, even if it appears healthy.
  • EDUCATE viewers to wash any bite wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY, even in the absence of an obvious bat bite.
  • ADVISE viewers they should not dispose of bats before having them tested for rabies. Testing the bat can decrease the number of unnecessary rabies vaccinations and ensure exposed individuals are treated.

Case Example

The parents of a young child are awakened at night by strange noises in their child’s bedroom. They find a bat behaving strangely: not hiding, making strange noises, having difficulty flying. The parents kill the bat and awaken the child. They find no evidence of a bite or scratch from the bat, and the child reports no contact with or bite from the bat. The father saves the bat in the freezer, “just in case.” A few weeks later, the child becomes very ill, with fever and flu-like symptoms. The distraught parents rush the child to a nearby hospital emergency room where they are asked about contact with animals. The parents tell doctors about the bat; the doctors suspect rabies. After consultation with the state health department, the doctor seeing the child asks the parents to bring in the bat. It tests positive for rabies and the parents are told their child will not survive.

Alternative Ending: Being cautious, the parents take the child to a hospital emergency room immediately after finding and trapping a bat in the bedroom. Doctors consult the state health department; the bat is tested for rabies and found to be rabid. Rabies shots are administered (vaccine and immune globulin immediately) and four additional doses of vaccine are given over the next month. The child recovers.

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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