The majority of rabies cases in the US come from bats, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Wednesday.
Dogs were once the most dangerous carriers of the life-threatening disease.
But times have changed, and bats are now responsible for seven out of 10 rabies cases.
Although about 5,000 rabid animals are reported each year in the US, only between one and three cases are reported in humans, an encouraging statistic that the CDC attributes to pet vaccination.
Beware the day bat: Rabid bats, which may act erratically and be overly active in the daytime are now the leading source of the life threatening infection, the CDC warns
It’s rare now, but rabies is a terrifying disease.
The potent virus is nearly always fatal to humans exposed to it and the disease quickly passes the point of no return.
Rabies is passed through saliva, so humans most commonly get it from animal bites of some form or other.
The virus swiftly attacks the nervous system, causing animals – or people – to convulse and become confused and even act ‘mad’ and erratic.
A classic depiction of a rabid animal is of a dog, foaming at the mouth, but not all infected animals do.
In fact, bats don’t have these obvious physical symptoms.
Instead, the CDC advises people to watch out for bats that are doing things bats don’t normally.
For example, bats are nocturnal animals, so if you see one flying around in the daytime, there’s likely something off about the animal – and it just might be rabies.
Or, if a bat is struggling to fly and flailing a yard, it’s best to avoid it.
Bats have emerged as the leading rabies threat only in relatively recent years.
That’s primarily because rabid dogs were a significant concern, especially to American children.
But – not unlike the MMR vaccine for humans helped to all but eliminate measles, (until recently) – the development of the rabies vaccine for pets has made dogs much safer animals than they once were.
‘Reducing rabies in dogs is a remarkable achievement of the U.S. public health system, but with this deadly disease still present in thousands of wild animals, it’s important that Americans are aware of the risk,’ CDC director Dr Robert Redfield said.
‘Rabies is almost universally fatal, and preventable if people know what to do if bitten or scratched.’
If the rabies vaccine is administered as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) quickly enough, it is effective at preventing the virus from overtaking the nervous system.
According to the CDC, about a third of all rabid animals reported in the US are bats (white). Other common wild carriers of the disease include skunks (green), raccoons (teal), foxes (navy) a possible skunk and fox combination (light teal) and mongooses (light blue)
Every year, the CDC estimates that some 55,000 people seek medical attention to get rabies PEP.
It’s unclear how many of them actually were exposed to the horrible disease, bu regardless, the combination of the vaccine for animals and the PEP for humans has rendered rabies an exceedingly rare infection.
Still, the CDC and Animal Control get reports of about 5,000 rabid animals each year, and about a third of them are bats.
‘Bats play a critical role in our ecosystem and it is important people know that most of the bats in the US are not rabid,’ said Emily Pieracci, a CDC veterinarian and co-author of the new report.
‘The problem comes when people try to handle bats they think are healthy because you really can’t tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it.
‘The best advice is to avoid contact with bats – and other wildlife – to protect yourself from rabies.’
Officials also warned against dogs in foreign countries, the second most common source of rabies in the US, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and mongooses.