Bats are the leading cause of domestically acquired rabies, according to the CDC, which reported that of 89 cases in the U.S. between 1960 and 2018, 62 of them (70 percent) were attributed to these mostly nocturnal mammals. (The remaining 30 percent of domestically acquired rabies cases were from other wild animals, including raccoons, skunks, and foxes.)
The second most common cause of rabies in Americans is rabid dogs that people come in contact with when traveling abroad (dogs are no longer considered a reservoir of rabies in the U.S.).
The problem with bats, in particular, is that the bites and scratches can be hard to see and are easily overlooked. You may even be bitten in your sleep and not know it. You can’t tell by looking at a bat if it has rabies (most don’t), but some possible telltale signs are if the animal is active during the day or unable to fly and easily captured.
If you know or suspect you have been bitten by a bat—or even just awaken to find one in your room—seek medical attention promptly to discuss whether you should get rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatment, which consists of a series of four injections in the arm. To prevent rabies, avoid contact with wildlife (especially injured animals and wild dogs) and vaccinate your pets.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Bite Wounds: What to Do.