SALT LAKE CITY — Late summer into fall is traditionally when Utah’s bat populations are at a peak; because of that, state health officials warn there’s an increased risk of rabies through the creatures.
The Utah Department of Health reported Tuesday that of the 44 bats tested for rabies this year, four tested positive. With the higher risk, they’re reminding Utahns to be careful around bats in the coming weeks and months.
“If you find yourself near a bat, dead or alive, do not touch, hit, or destroy it and do not try to remove it from your home yourself, Hannah Rettler, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said in a news release. “Call your local animal control office to collect the bat and call your healthcare provider or local public health department immediately to report the possible exposure and determine whether preventive treatment is necessary.”
Utah is home to at least 18 species of bats, according to Kimberly Hersey, the mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Since the species mostly feed off insects, many bat species migrate or hibernate during the colder months.
They tend to awake from hibernation or return from migration around May and June. That’s also when female bats find places where they can give birth to pups.
“They’re amazing and adaptable, and part of that adaptation is some species have been able to get along with humans pretty well and actually find habitat in our homes,” Hersey said. “Females are looking for a nice, warm place to settle down, have their young and raise them. Attics, up under roofs and other places of houses can provide those conditions that are really good for some of these species.”
The pups start to crawl around and fly for the first time around a few weeks after that, which means the bat population flying around Utah starts to increase during the last half of summer.
“This is the time of the year when we’ll have the peak number of (bats) as the young are emerging and being more active,” Hersey added.
Five of Utah’s bat species will begin to migrate in late August, and that will continue through October.
The rabies risk
Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system of humans and animals. It can be contracted through bites, scratches or saliva. Bat teeth and claws are small enough that a bite or scratch might not be seen or felt by someone, state health officials say. That’s why it’s important to avoid them if possible.
The state requires all domestic dogs, cats and ferrets to receive a rabies vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40,000 Americans end up receiving post-exposure prophylaxis treatment each year due to rabies exposure.
Utah health officials say rabies is considered 100% fatal once rabies symptoms develop. While it is the cause of thousands of deaths every year worldwide, a 2019 study published by the CDC noted that rabies in human cases in the U.S. were extremely rare. It stated there were 125 fatal human rabies cases reported in the country between 1960 and 2018, or about two per year.
That’s not to say it can’t happen. For example, a 55-year-old Sanpete County man died from rabies in 2018, which was Utah’s first fatal rabies case in 74 years. Bats were attributed as the source of how he contracted the virus.
The state health department recommends that pet owners keep their pets inside and supervise them when outside to prevent them from coming in contact with wild animals. They also recommend people not approach wild animals, noting that animals infected with rabies may appear unafraid of people.
If you are bitten by any wild or domestic creature, the department recommends immediately washing the wound with soap and water and seeing a health care provider, as well as animal control to help capture the animal for rabies testing or observation.
More tips about rabies can be found on the department's website.
What to do if you have bats in your home
As bats fly around during the peak season, there’s the possibility that some — including a colony of bats — might find shelter in your home for roosting. So what should you do in that scenario?
Bats are a protected wildlife species, making the act of killing them illegal. Hersey said homeowners should first contact a permitted wildlife rehabilitation or nuisance control company that will work with wildlife officials to remove them. DWR has a list of these companies available on its website.
It’s worth noting that the wildlife agency typically doesn’t remove bat colonies during this point of the year because it’s a critical period for the young pups to thrive. Some exceptions are made if there are human health or safety concerns, Hersey added.
As for a single bat in a home, wildlife officials say people can also remove bats in two ways. One way is to open a door or window, turn off all the lights in a home and turn on an outside light that may lead the bat to fly away on its own. The second is to remove it by using a box or container. In that situation, the person can approach a bat and put the container around it and then slide a piece of cardboard or anything that will close the container. They can then release the bat outside on a tree or other high object.
Given the rabies risk, wildlife officials say people should wear sturdy gloves and not handle a bat with their bare hands.
DWR experts say people can also prevent bats from roosting in their homes. This can be done by adding fans in an attic to cool it down and make it difficult for a bat to roost there. People can also seal cracks in attics before or after a bat has roosted there. Officials said people can also install bird netting that bats can drop down when leaving the home but makes it difficult for them to reenter the home. Once all bats have left, they can seal holes in the home.