When some people think about bats, they see them as ugly, scary, nasty little creatures and harmful blood-sucking pests. That might be true… in the movies. The truth is that bats are far more benign and indeed, play an important role in the BC ecosystem. Unfortunately, we continue to exterminate bats and may even actively kill them. Or we inadvertently destroy their roosting sites. That means bats as a whole remain threatened.
Did you know that bats are not rodents? Rather, they are in their own ‘order’ called Chiroptera. There are 16 species of bats in BC, half of which are considered vulnerable or threatened.
Bats are beneficial because they eat huge numbers of flying insects, as much as their own weight (or more) every night. Think about that next time you’re bitten by a mosquito!
“But what about vampire bats?” you ask. There are only three species that eat blood, all found in Central and South America. Canadian bats eat nothing but insects and other arthropods, and in most cases, only flying insects.
Bats are a valuable part of our ecosystem but they should be left alone. That’s because they may carry rabies, a fatal disease that affects the central nervous system. Admittedly, rabies in bats is uncommon with only four to eight per cent of those sent for testing carry the disease. But if a bat is infected with rabies, it can transmit to humans when its saliva comes into contact with a person’s mucus membranes (eyes, nose, and mouth) or through a break in the skin. That means we strongly recommend avoiding all physical contact with bats whether alive or dead.
Most human contact with bats happens between July and September when bats are most active and juveniles are weaned. Contact with bats usually happens when bats find their way into homes through unscreened windows or when people find injured bats.
Randy Ash, Manager, Environmental Health for Vancouver Coastal Health, explains: “We hear of people finding an injured or sick bat and trying to nurse it back to health. A bat acting unusually may be more likely to be infected with rabies, so this practice is risky.”
A few simple steps can prevent infection. First, avoid all contact with bats. Warn children about the risks of exposure to rabies and to avoid contact, even if “they are so cute” to some. If you have a pet dog, cat or ferret, make sure that it is vaccinated regularly against rabies.
In the case where someone has been scratched, bitten or had physical contact with a bat, seek immediate medical attention. Rabies can be prevented with a vaccine if given soon after exposure to the virus; immunization is ineffective once symptoms develop. And in case you’re worried about those painful stomach shots, that’s not been the case for decades — the vaccine is four small injections in the arm.
Anyone who has been bitten or scratched by a bat or who has handled a bat should immediately wash the scratch or bite thoroughly with soap and water, using lots of water to flush the wound and seek medical attention right away. If the bat is still alive, have a wildlife expert capture it.
The most recent human case of rabies in BC linked to a bat strain of the virus was more than 10 years ago… and it was fatal. But just because rabies is rare does not mean it is not a possibility. Don’t take the chance.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.