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ALBANY — Given that bats typically roost in houses during the spring and summer months, officials with the Albany County Health Department advise local residents to capture any bats which may have come into contact with people or pets so that they can be tested for rabies. Residents are also encouraged to submit themselves for rabies testing as a precautionary measure.
During the warmer months, numerous worried residents generally call the County Health Department regarding the possible exposure to rabies after encountering bats in their homes. Bats typically roost—settle or congregate—away from people’s initial line of vision, in areas such as inside attics, behind shutters and other sheltered places.
The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines rabies as “a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal,” such as a bat, fox, skunk or raccoon. This virus attacks a human’s central nervous system, which can damage the brain or even be fatal. Symptoms include fever, weakness, discomfort and headaches. These symptoms can worsen to phenomena including “insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia.” Death generally occurs in a matter of days after such symptoms first show up.
According to the Albany County Health Department, while bats are rarely infected with rabies, they can still be dangerous to humans, especially if they physically contact them through biting, scratching, or dropping their saliva into one’s eyes, nose, mouth or an open wound. Only a bat’s brain, spinal cord and saliva specifically have the virus: humans cannot contract rabies through encounters with bats’ fecal matter, blood or urine.
Furthermore, bats have little sharp teeth and their resulting bite marks may not be easily visible, so getting tested for rabies is paramount.
Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, the health department’s commissioner, said that so far this year, it has administered 89 injections to concerned residents who feared they got rabies.
“In over 90 or 95 percent of these cases, we would not need to administer injections in the first place if we were able to test the possibly rabid animal in question for rabies, and eventually find out if it comes up negative,” she said. She stressed the importance of capturing and submitting a possibly rabid animal to the department for rabies testing. “Especially for children, seniors, the mentally impaired and those who just consumed alcohol, if they are in a situation where it’s possible they were exposed to a rabid animal, they should still get tested just in case.”
Noting that rabies testing is free of charge which the Health Department would coordinate, she also said that the department has received roughly over 100 phone calls from concerned residents, though it’s “uncertain how many exactly. It could even be up to 200 possibly.”
She reiterated that encountering bats indoors is normal during the warmer months of the year, while sightings typically decrease in the fall and winter.
“I just don’t want people to fear that this is something new and different, it’s annual,” she said. “But just know that residents can capture the bat which saves a lot of time and concern in the end, especially if the bat is eventually tested negative for rabies.”
During the month of June, while the New York State Department of Health examined nine potentially-infected bats, none were found to positively have rabies. These bats were among 20 animals in Albany County that were tested for rabies that month. Others included two dogs, five cats, one skunk and a raccoon. While the state’s official report for July has not yet been released, Albany County’s precautionary measures hope to keep the number of animals testing positive for rabies at zero again.
The county health department encourages residents to not only actively “batproof” their residence, but also be prepared to catch a bat should they discover one inside their home.
To “batproof” one’s home, residents should “use polypropylene bird netting, fly screening, sheet metal, wood or various caulking compounds to close or cover openings that allow entry for bats to roost,” according to the Health Department. Residents should also note that bats can easily travel through extremely tiny or thin openings. The use of chemicals or pesticides to eliminate the creatures is strongly discouraged.
When a resident does discover a bat indoors, he or she should ensure all windows are closed, room and closet doors are shut, while the lights are left on. Once the bat lands, capture it using an appropriately-sized container, such as a bucket or a pail. After the resident carefully inserts a sheet of cardboard under the container, he or she should contact the Health Department to discuss rabies testing for the bat and any human who potentially encountered it.
Also, if a sleeping resident wakes up to find a bat in the room, which Dr. Whalen said is a common situation, they are urged to go through rabies testing and possibly rabies post-exposure treatment themselves, by contacting the department. Unfortunately, a bat’s bite does not necessarily awaken the resident from slumber.
In most cases, Albany County residents can also receive rabies vaccinations at the Health Department’s headquarters at 175 Green St. in Albany.
The Albany County Health Department’s website has additional facts and video tutorials on how to safely capture a bat indoors, accessible at www.albanycounty.com/health.
Dr. Whalen said of the 215 animals county residents submitted to the department for testing in 2017, only 13 were found to be rabid, one of which was a bat. In 2018 to date, while there have not been critically dangerous cases regarding exposure to rabies in Albany County, “we don’t want to take a chance, even if the risk is so small. This isn’t a critical issue but yes, it’s still precautionary,” said Dr. Whalen.
“One of my top priorities as County Executive is protecting the health and well-being of residents and keeping them safe,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy, in a press release issued on Monday, Aug. 20. “Though only a small percentage of bats have rabies, unfortunately you cannot tell one has the disease simply by looking at it, and if contracted, it could be fatal. Therefore, we are urging everyone to take every precaution.”
Earlier this month, a rabid, feral cat bit a male resident in Selkirk before Bethlehem Animal Control captured it on Maple Avenue. The man has since been receiving treatment. Anyone who may have come in contact with the grey, short-haired cat is strongly encouraged to get medically tested for rabies.
For more information about how to deal with roosting bats and rabies in general, call the department at 518-447-4620, visit its website, or visit CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/rabies.