Pets & Bats

How concerned should we be if we find our pet has caught or otherwise had contact with a bat?

There has been much talk in the media of late about the potential for humans to contract some very nasty diseases from bats. Hendra Virus has been topical for several years and, with the recent tragic death of a young child, Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) is another issue concerning people. ABLV is a recognised zoonosis with two prior recorded human fatalities as a result of direct human-bat exposure. There is no effective treatment for ABLV once symptoms are shown. There is also, however, no current evidence to say whether or not ABLV can be transmitted from bats to pets or other animals. It is presumed that if an animal of a non-bat species develops clinical disease due to ABVL infection, that animal has the potential to transmit ABLV to humans and other animals. Currently, this chain of transmission is rated as remote but possible.

Bats are extremely commonplace, especially in gardens where there are fruiting trees. It is not surprising that, at times, dogs and cats are going to encounter bats. The actual incidence of ABLV in the general bat population is not high; <1%. Sick bats may present with a range of symptoms but they are often bats that are found on the ground or low in trees or in unusual locations and they may not be able to fly. This, of course, makes them prime targets for pets (and possibly children). In bats that are like this, the incidence of infection with ABLV is thought to be as high as 10% and in bats that actually cannot fly as high as 30%.    

Jed, the English Staffie, was found by his owner just after midnight having caught a bat. The bat was still alive and Jed was biting it. Jed's owner very sensibly removed Jed but upon returning to where the incident had taken place, found no sign of the bat.

Had the bat been there, what should he have done?

Of course, it would be very nice to establish, for Jed's sake, is if that particular bat was infected with ABLV.....

However, members of the public are strongly advised not to attempt to handle living bats. Only vaccinated people who have been trained in the care of bats should ever handle bats or flying foxes. Persons who come across an injured bat should contact the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (1300 130 372), RSPCA (1300 ANIMAL) or your local wildlife care group/rescuer/carer for assistance. Do not touch the bat and avoid direct contact with any bat saliva. If the bat is present and still alive, a large box or container could be placed over the bat to confine it until assistance can be obtained. 

If the bat was dead, it could have been collected and placed into a secure and waterproof container. All handling should be done remotely (eg using a garden fork or spade) inverting a thick plastic bag over the carcass and wearing rubber gloves. Exposure of skin or mucous membranes to the secretions or excretions of the bat must be avoided. It should then be refrigerated until it can be taken to a Veterinarian and then a decision can be made as to whether the carcass should be submitted for testing.

While bat faeces, urine and blood are not considered to pose a risk of ABLV, contact with any bat fluids should generally be avoided. If you have any contact with bat fluids, wash your hands (or other affected area) immediately

In the absence of the bat, we have no way of knowing if it was infected with ABLV and if Jed is at any risk or not.

Jed’s owner decided he didn’t want to take any chances. He presented Jed to us for a Rabies Vaccine. This is also the course of action that is taken in humans as the vaccine against rabies offers cross protection against ABLV. This vaccine is administered only with permission granted by the Chief Veterinary Officer for Biosecurity Queensland and the animal must be microchipped. Ideally the vaccine is administered as soon as possible after exposure and a blood sample is taken and frozen. It was very fortunate that, as we do a lot preparation for animals travelling overseas, we keep rabies vaccine in stock. A second vaccination is given 5-7 days later and a second blood test taken at day 28. The purpose of the blood tests is to ensure the animal has responded to the vaccines. A positive response means the animal can then be considered “safe”” to stay at home and not be a risk to others.

Despite all of this, the owner must observe the pet closely for 60 days for any changes in behaviour and, of course, do all they can to stop the animal having any further contact with bats.

There are simple steps to avoid ABVL disease:

  • don't handle bats unless you are trained in handling them and vaccinated against rabies
  • if you are bitten or scratched by a bat, wash the wound thoroughly and seek immediate medical advice about injections to protect you against infection
  • keep pets away from fruiting trees and other areas where bats are likely to be.