Rabies: What you should know

EAST WENATCHEE – So far this year, five bats in the Chelan-Douglas Health District have tested positive for rabies, most recently a bat found at Ohme Gardens in Wenatchee. That is by far the most confirmed cases of rabid bats in decades and the problem is not limited to North Central Washington. By May, the state had already reached a 20-year high for diagnosed rabid bats. Health officials are uncertain what is causing the spike in rabies cases but are urging residents to take great care around bats.


“Rabies is an unusual disease because it’s one of the very few that’s always fatal,” said Barry Kling, the administrator of the Chelan-Douglas Health District. “There have been only one or two people in medical history who have ever recovered. So when people are exposed to an animal like bats that could be rabid, we’re very conservative about how we deal with it and we’ve had a lot of bat encounters with people this year, an unusual number, about twice as many as we had last summer. And, of course, the summer isn’t over yet. So we’ve submitted 38 bats for testing at the State Public Health Lab. And of those, five have turned out to be positive. And, of course, a number of people have had rabies shots as a result.”

The local health department sends bats to the State Public Health Lab to be tested for rabies. The brain is the part that is tested. It is not necessary for the bat to be alive when captured for testing to occur. However, the bat’s brain must be in good enough shape in order to be tested.

Rabid bats can appear to look like any other healthy bat. However, there might be something wrong with a bat that is seeing flying around in daylight, whether or not it has rabies.

“Once they’re flying around in town, they’re probably sick in some way,” said Kling. “But they don’t look any different, they’re not a different color, they might be dead or they might be sluggish but, then again, that could be caused by a lot of things.”

A person with rabies will start experiencing relatively mild flu-like symptoms that will rapidly progress to much more serious symptoms such as nervous system dysfunction and convulsions before he or she dies. A person will also become repelled by water; hydrophobia is not a myth. However, getting rabies shots within a few days after an exposure will prevent infection.

Rabies transmission is generally caused through exposure to the bat’s saliva. This can happen in several ways: a bat biting a person, a bat landing on a sleeping person and licking moist lips or eyes, or a person with a small cut touching a bat’s body after the bat has licked itself. A person can also contract rabies from an infected pet.

“With a disease this bad we’re really conservative and infections have occurred with what seemed like minimal exposures,” said Kling.

If a person finds a bat in an innocuous place, such as on a wall, he or she should wait and see if the bat flies away. If the bat is in a place where people could be readily exposed to it, or if people or pets have been exposed to it, a person should avoid touching the bat. The best thing to do is call Animal Control or Public Health.

To capture a bat a person must wear thick gloves and hold a couple layers of plastic bags to grasp the bat. If the bat is alive it can be trapped with a large can or a box with a flat piece of cardboard slid between the can or box and a wall.

More information about bat exposures can be found at cdhd.wa.gov.