Luckily, I'm not freaked out by bats. In fact, I'm kind of a bat advocate, even after our puppy, Ruby, had a close encounter with a sick one. Right after the unsettling event, we called our vet, who helped us start the process that would hopefully rule out rabies. Four days after delivering the bat to the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for testing, we got a call from the Minnesota Department of Health with the good news. Negative. The bat was not rabid.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website defines rabies as a viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system of mammals and eventually kills them. There's no cure. But if, after exposure, you begin postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is a series of shots over a two-week period, you can rid your body of the virus. The CDC notes that deciding about whether or not to initiate PEP requires consultations with your health care provider and maybe someone from the local or state department of health. And it would depend on several factors, including the type of animal involved, if the animal's teeth broke through your skin and if the animal is available for testing.
What animals carry rabies? Any mammal can get rabies if bitten by another rabid animal. But where I live, in Minnesota, bats and skunks are the animals most likely to carry rabies. Other animals that carry rabies in the U.S. include foxes, coyotes, bats and rarely racoons. The Minnesota Department of Health's website has great info on that and on rabies in general, including a flow chart that walks you through what to do if you experience a possible exposure. The website also includes an up-to-date map of where and when an animal tests positive for rabies throughout the state. They report that only 3.6% of the bats they test are rabid, compared to half of all skunks.
When I saw the sick bat that attracted the attention of my dog, I assumed it was ill with rabies. The same held true about a lethargic racoon that sauntered into our yard last year and fell asleep. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' website says that racoons in this state rarely carry rabies, but they can or may have other diseases, so if you're bitten by one, try to catch for testing. And you should contact your health care provider for advice.
Bats also carry a variety of diseases, rabies included. The DNR website says that say a disease called "white nose syndrome" is a disease that's killing millions of bats in North America. If you see a bat or have some living cozily in your eaves, remember that it is illegal to kill them. The DNR includes the northern long-eared bat on a list of endangered species, which means it is protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. And they note that other types of bats are being considered for the list too.
While I'd rather not have another run-in with one, I believe that bats notoriously get a bad wrap. Think Dracula, vampires and other blood-sucking creatures of our nightmares. Yes, they can carry rabies and are suspects in COVID-19, but they also do a lot of good for the environment. Bat Conservation International lists these positive aspects of bats: they control insect pests, are plant pollinators and disperse seeds.
Because rabies has no cure, the disease is nothing to mess with. If you're bitten by any mammal, please act fast. Call your vet and/or healthcare provider immediately for advice. They can help determine if you or your pet needs prophylactic treatment.
Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.