Summertime and Rabies Awareness

LuAnn Burgmuller, RN
Director, Ravalli County Public Health


Summertime and Rabies Awareness
As summer approaches and people spend more time outdoors, our Public Health department begins to receive numerous calls about animal bites and the concern for rabies.

The bad news: Rabies is a fatal disease. The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected warm-blooded mammals and is usually transmitted to people and other animals through a bite. Bats are a great concern in Montana because a bite may not be noticeable.

The good news: Rabies can be prevented by avoiding contact with wild animals and seeking prompt preventive treatment if you think you have been exposed. Rabies is fatal once the symptoms appear, but the virus has a long incubation period. Prompt vaccination after exposure can prevent the disease in humans. Rabies shots are no longer the painful ordeal they once were. They are usually given in the arm, and are no more painful than a tetanus shot, but they are very expensive.

The most common wild carriers of rabies are skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats. If a wild animal cannot be located or submitted for testing, a person may need to undergo the series of shots to prevent disease. In 2015, administration of treatment to prevent infection was recommended to nearly 200 individuals here in Montana; 13 of those were in Ravalli County. If someone is bitten by a domestic dog, cat or ferret, the animal can be observed, avoiding the series of shots.

Please be aware that any bat that has physical contact with a person, or is found in an area where contact may have occurred but gone undetected (such as a bedroom with a sleeping adult or child) should be tested for rabies when possible. If you find a bat in your home or find a pet with a bat, safely capture the bat, if possible. DO NOT TOUCH THE BAT WITH YOUR BARE HANDS! Use heavy leather gloves, a heavy towel, or tongs to pick up the bat. Put it in a container and cover with a tight lid. Do not damage the head of the bat, because its brain is needed for the rabies test. If the bat is dead, keep it in a clean jar in the refrigerator (not the freezer) until it is submitted for rabies testing.

The bat can be taken as soon as possible to your local veterinarian who will ship it to the Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for testing.

Rabies prevention tips:

bulletDo not feed or handle wild animals, especially bats. Teach children never to touch wild animals or handle bats, even dead ones. Ask children to tell an adult if they see or find a bat.
  • Vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies. Cats are especially susceptible to rabies exposure as a result of more contact with wild animals than dogs. All dogs and cats should have a current rabies certificate.
  • Bat-proof your house. Bats must not be allowed in living areas of your home. Put screens on all windows, doors and chimneys to prevent bats from entering. You can prevent bats from roosting in attics or buildings by covering outside entry points, loosely hanging clear plastic sheeting or bird netting over these areas. Bats crawl out and leave, but cannot re-enter. To avoid trapping any young bats who will die or try to make their way into your rooms, seal the openings permanently after August or in the fall after bats have left for the season.
  • Watch for abnormal wild animal behavior. Most wild animals avoid humans, and seeing skunks and bats during the daytime is rare. Infected animals often show no fear for humans or may act very agitated. If you see an animal acting strangely, leave it alone and contact law enforcement or an animal control agency if you think it may pose a danger.

If you or your child has any contact with a bat or find a bat in your home, or are bitten or scratched by any wild or stray animal, contact a health care provider or your public health department for guidance. If an incident occurs on a weekend or after hours, you may call Ravalli County dispatch at 363-3033 and the public health nurse on call will be paged to help with guidance.

The community health column is brought to you this month by a partnership between Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and Ravalli County Public Health. Questions or comments may be directed to LuAnn Burgmuller, RN, Director Ravalli County Public Health, 205 Bedford St, Hamilton MT (next to the museum), Open 8-5 M-F (closed noon to 1) Phone 406-375- 6672.
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