What to do if you spot potential rabies infections in bat populations

The possibility of a bat infected with rabies passing the disease onto humans or other mammals is rare, according to an updated report by Defra.
However, a number of infected bats have been identified in the south west over the past few years, including in Somerset and Dorset (the Poole area in particular), and it is important to know how to spot potential cases and what your responsibilities are.
Rabies in bats is a notifiable animal disease. If you suspect you have identified a case, you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301.
Note, that failure to do so is an offence.

How do you know a bat has rabies?
It can be hard to spot signs of infection and it can only be confirmed in a laboratory.
There are clinical signs that a bat may be carrying rabies: they are prone to be more aggressive, they may appear disorientated and have difficulty flying, which may lead to injury.
Slightly harder to spot is that the eyes may take on a staring expression.

How is rabies spread by bats?
A bite from an infected bat can pass on rabies as it is present in saliva.
Perhaps even less pleasantly, if saliva from an infected bat gets into an open wound or comes into contact with the nostrils, mouth and lips, eyelids and ears, it is possible to pass on the disease.
As stated above, it is possible for a human to catch rabies from an infected bat, but the rarity of the disease makes this unlikely.
If you do have cause for thinking you might have come into contact with the saliva of an infected bat you will need to seek emergency medical help.
There are vaccinations against rabies, and the disease can normally be prevented if you are treated soon after exposure.
However, once signs of rabies appear, there is no treatment and past human cases have been fatal.
Human symptoms include:
● Anxiety, headaches and fever in the early stages.
● Spasms of the swallowing muscles, making it difficult or impossible to drink.
● Breathing difficulties.

Handling bats
If you regularly handle bats you should ensure you are vaccinated against the disease.
If you do need to handle bats, Defra offers the following advice:
● Assume that all bats are possible carriers of rabies.
● Avoid touching bats, living or dead, whenever possible.
● If you must touch a bat, follow the Bat Conservation Trust guidance and wear thick gloves to avoid being bitten or scratched.

What to do if bitten
If you have been bitten or scratched by a bat, or exposed to bat saliva or nervous tissue in any other way, you must:
● Wash the wound or contact area with soap and water.
● Disinfect the wound.
● Contact a doctor immediately, who will decide whether you need treatment.

If you suspect rabies in a bat
If you suspect rabies or you see abnormal behaviour in a bat, contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) via the Defra number and following directions to be put through.
APHA vets will investigate and may submit the bat for testing to see whether the signs were caused by rabies.

Left: A greater horseshoe bat Credit: Nils Bouillard/Unsplash

Left: A greater horseshoe bat
Credit: Nils Bouillard/Unsplash

If you find a dead bat
Do not directly handle the bat if possible. If you have to touch the bat, follow the Bat Conservation Trust guidance (see below) and use thick gloves.

If your pet finds a bat
If your pet catches a bat, keep your pet under observation.
If your pet falls sick or starts behaving unusually, you must contact your vet immediately.
Your vet will tell APHA if they suspect your pet has rabies.

Monitoring rabies in bats
APHA tests dead bats submitted by the public to monitor how widespread the disease is in Great Britain.
Only very few have tested positive in more than 15,000 tests since 1986, so the risk of catching rabies from a bat is very low.
But it is always best to be prepared and to be alert.

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