Employee & Community Health

Bats & rabies: Separating fact from fiction

10/10/2019 by Robert M. Jacobson, MD, and Julie Gebel, RN

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Bats are back in the news. A recent Twin Cities article reported that a bat found in downtown Minneapolis tested positive for rabies, and the state public health department was seeking to learn if anyone came in contact with it. 

While bats on a busy downtown corner are unusual, we can often view them darting about at twilight in Minnesota neighborhoods and farms. But what is fact about bats and rabies and what is fiction? 

Let's start with fiction: Bats don't fly through your bedroom window and turn into a blood-sucking human. Now for the facts: 

Fact: Bats cause most cases of rabies in humans in the U.S. Rabies is a viral disease that spreads from the saliva of the rabid animal through the bite to the nerves and then to the brain. Once the brain is infected and symptoms develop, the disease is fatal. Only timely immunization can prevent rabies. 

Fact: Just 3 to 4% of bats test positive for rabies. Most bats are perfectly healthy, and we can't catch rabies from simply being near a bat, even if it was living in the space or died there. Rabies needs to be transmitted by a bite. 

Fact: Most adults bitten by a bat report a stinging pain, but the bite leaves no wounds or marks. Sleeping adults may not even notice a bat bite. 

Fact: These are the situations when a bat should be tested for rabies:

  • Person has been bitten by the bat
  • Person has had any physical contact with the bat
  • Person wakes up to find a bat in the room where they were sleeping
  • Bat is found in a room with an unattended child
  • Bat is found in a room with anyone who can't reliably communicate whether or not there was physical contact

Fact: To test the bat, it needs to be caught properly and submitted for testing. Here are the how-to instructions for catching the bat and getting it tested. The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in St. Paul does testing in Minnesota. 

If you can't capture the bat, contact Mayo Clinic at 284-5233 to set up a clinic visit so the exposed person can be immunized against rabies. 

Dr. Robert M. Jacobson is a primary care pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM) and medical director of the ECH Immunization Program. 

Julie A. Gebel is a registered nurse in ECH and is the program coordinator of the ECH Immunization Program.