Struck by a Bat: My Son’s Rabies Scare

Just over three weeks ago my son, Jacob, was riding his bicycle in River Forest, Illinois when a bat struck his head. When he arrived home, my husband immediately checked his head for any wounds, but did not see any. I was still at work when I heard about this and initially dismissed it as a crazy event with no immediate concerns. My son felt differently, rightly so, and started searching the Internet for any information about rabies and bats in Illinois. By the end of the night, my son was terrorized by videos of people in developing nations dying from rabies.

The next morning I looked at Jacob’s head for a bite mark and did find a little red mark above his left ear. I grew more concerned. I contacted my doctor and asked him how we should proceed. He immediately came to the conclusion that any known physical bat contact in Illinois warrants rabies post-exposure prophylaxis with the vaccine and immunoglobulin therapy. To further convince me that his advice was sound, he revealed that if a person awakes in a bedroom with a bat, even if there are no visible bite marks on its body, the American Medical Association recommends prophylactic rabies vaccination therapy. Bite marks from bats can be miniscule and are not easily visible to the eye. The risk of acquiring rabies and the deadly consequence of it warrants extreme precautious measures to be taken, especially in Illinois where at least one percent of all bats carry rabies.

Jacob and I then proceeded to the nearest major hospital for the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin therapy. Each hospital personnel we told our story to could not believe that it happened. My son was a real trooper. He received the four injections of his immunoglobulin therapy in his buttocks, and the first of four rabies vaccines in his arm. We returned to the hospital on the third, seventh and fourteenth day post initial vaccine for the subsequent vaccines. Fortunately, my son only experienced mild flu-like symptoms after each vaccine.

As a veterinarian I am very familiar with the signs and symptoms of rabies. I was vaccinated against rabies when I was in veterinary medical school because I was entering a high-risk occupation for rabies. However, the vast majority of the population is not protected and is at risk of acquiring rabies when exposed to wild life; such as bats, raccoons, coyotes, foxes and skunks. Although you cannot look at a bat and say it has rabies for sure, a bat that is erratically flying, active during the day, or showing signs of paralysis or weakness, may potentially be showing signs of rabies. Any ill wildlife should be avoided and reported to your local Animal Care and Control Officer.

Rabies can only be acquired through the saliva or brain/nervous tissue of a rabid animal. The urine, blood or feces of the rabid animal cannot transmit the disease. If a wild animal bites you, you should immediately wash the site with soap and water and contact your doctor for further instructions. In addition, please contact your local police or Animal Care and Control officer to help you capture the animal. You should not place yourself in immediate danger of being bitten again while trying to capture the animal. The officer should submit the animal’s head for rabies viral antigen identification. If the wild animal is dead do not directly touch the body.

Rabies in humans has a variable incubation period before signs appear. The shortest incubation period reported was 4 days after exposure to a rabid animal and the longest reported was 6 years after a known bite incident. The first signs of rabies in humans are similar to flu-like symptoms of weakness, fever and headache. As the disease progresses the symptoms magnify to anxiety, confusion, agitation, delirium and hallucinations. Once the clinical signs of rabies appears the disease is almost always fatal.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over 55, 000 people die annually of rabies with the majority of the deaths occurring in Africa and Asia. The most important single source of rabies globally is the rabid dog. Rabies transmission from dogs accounts for 99 % of the documented rabies cases in humans worldwide. In the United States, the CDC reports that the principal rabies hosts today are wild carnivores and bats. There has not been a single reported case of rabies transmitted from a dog residing exclusively in United States to humans in over eighteen years.

Check your pet’s vaccine status and make sure it is up to date. One never knows when a bat or wild animal may accidently enter your home, garage or yard and potentially interact with your pet. Coincidently, today my veterinary technician Natalie told me about her frightening experience of a bat inside her Chicago apartment this weekend. She was lying on her couch and saw her cat Opal looking up at the ceiling. She followed her gaze and discovered at bat hanging from her ceiling fan. She can only imagine that the bat crept through a newly installed skylight. Fortunately, Opal was just staring at it in bewilderment and had no immediate contact with it.

Occasionally, I have clients say to me that their cat is exclusively indoors and therefore does not need the rabies vaccine. I strongly disagree with this statement. Freakish events happen! My technician’s recent experience with a bat in her apartment is a perfect example of why indoor cats should be vaccinated against rabies. In addition, if your rabies vaccinated pet accidently bites a person, you will avoid the stress and the financial burden of a ten-day quarantine in a rabies approved quarantine facility.

What can you do to prevent this deadly disease in your pet? Be proactive. Have your veterinarian vaccinate your dog, cat or ferret against rabies. Be safe. Watch your pet when they go outside and eliminate their exposure to wild animals. Spay or neuter your pet to help minimize strays that could be a potential reservoir for rabies. Don’t forget to report any ill stray animal to your local Animal Care and Control officer. And finally, don’t pet wild animals. Let’s eliminate this disease in our lifetime.

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