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Public health lab warns of rabid bats in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Public Health Laboratory is reminding the public that contact with bats and other wildlife could result in a fatal rabies infection, after two bats tested positive for rabies in the past week.

"There is no treatment for rabies once clinical signs appear and it is always fatal. Therefore, all cases of potential exposure need to be taken seriously and reported as soon as possible," UPHL said in a news release issued Wednesday.

For the eighth time this year, the lab has confirmed a case of rabies in bats it has tested. This comes after they discovered a seventh case last week.

"Another common route of exposure [to rabies] is through contact with pets or livestock that have had contact with potentially infected wildlife," a news release from the lab said. "Signs of rabies include obvious changes in normal behavior like aggression, attacking without provocation, foaming at the mouth, no interest in food or water, staggering, or paralysis."

Wild animals infected with rabies may act unusually tame, the news release said, and infected bats may be seen flying around in the daytime, resting on the ground, or they may show no signs of infection at all.

Anyone who sees an animal exhibiting signs of a rabies infection, or who believes a pet or person may have been exposed to a rabid animal is urged to call 888-EPI-UTAH (888-374-8824) or contact the local health department.

"All human and animal exposures to bats need to be reported regardless of whether the bat appears to be rabid," the news release said.

According to UPHL, a person or animal bitten by a bat needs to have the bite wound immediately washed. If possible, the bat responsible for the bite should be caught by a person wearing leather gloves so it can be tested for rabies, UPHL's news release said. Never try to handle a bat with bare hands.

If you capture a bat that has bitten a person or animal, contact your local animal control center or the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to collect the bat. The bat may have rabies and needs to be tested for the infection to determine if the bite victim needs a rabies vaccination.

"Vaccines for pets and livestock are very effective at preventing the disease. While most people are aware of the importance of ensuring dogs are up to date on rabies vaccinations, it is equally important that cats and horses receive rabies vaccinations. Cats are the most common domestic animal to be reported as positive for rabies in the United States," the news release said. "A typical exposure scenario is a house cat that is found playing with a dead bat or leaves a dead bat on the doorstep."

The lab urges pet owners who suspect their pets have been exposed to rabies to contact their veterinarians for an approved rabies vaccination.

"Making sure that pets are protected against rabies using an approved vaccine administered by a veterinarian will save owners a great deal in terms of time, money, and grief should their animal be exposed and they are forced to choose between euthanasia or a costly and lengthy quarantine," the news release said.

About 15-25 bats test positive for rabies every year in Utah, and wild carnivores like raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes are also considered high-risk species in rabies exposures.

A report published in 2000 [pdf] identifies 18 different species of bat that have been found in Utah, and three others that have been found in surrounding states.