Close encounters with raccoons and bats spark warning about rabies and reminder for when to call the health department
Following a notable amount of rabies investigations from bats in homes and other wildlife encounters, the Erie County Department of Health is reminding residents that wildlife – especially raccoons, bats and foxes – should never be touched or handled.
Rabies investigations can involve several different types of situations. Animal bites from pets or any warm-blooded wild animal will warrant an investigation, as will cases where someone has handled or touched a wild animal, and encounters with bats, especially inside a home and while people are sleeping.
“Rabies is transferred through the saliva and nerve tissue of an infected warm-blooded mammal,” Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein said. “When any person has an exposure to that animal’s saliva, as with an animal bite, our department investigates and will send the animal for rabies testing, if possible, to confirm or rule out rabies exposure. If we cannot confirm that the animal is negative for rabies, we may refer those cases for post-exposure prophylaxis with rabies vaccine.”
A press release stated, “Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a series of four or five doses of rabies vaccine along with immunoglobulin that, when given in time, is a highly effective way to prevent an individual from developing rabies. The rabies virus is 100% fatal to humans if a post-exposure treatment is not given, is not given correctly or is given too late.”
Burstein said, “We want people to call our department if there is any question about a potential rabies exposure. Since rabies is 100% fatal, it is always better to be safe than sorry.”
ECDOH receives reports each year of adults and children who have picked up wildlife, in some cases even bringing them into their home.
“Unless you are a trained wildlife rehabilitator or animal control officer, leave wild animals alone,” Burstein said. “Stray cats can also be a vector for rabies, and should only be handled by qualified experts. If you touch or handle any wild mammal, or if any animal bites you, please call the Department of Environmental Health at 716-961-6800 so we can investigate. If we determine that post-exposure prophylaxis is needed, our epidemiology team will make sure the exposed person can receive it, regardless of ability to pay.”
In the summer season, increased wildlife movement and more people spending time outside lead to more chances for contact between wildlife, humans and pets. ECDOH conducted 2,758 rabies investigations in 2020, which was a decline from the average of more than 3,000 per year. Based on those investigations, ECDOH offered PEP to 419 people in 2020; 60% of those approvals were due to encounters with bats.
“There are some situations where we definitely want people to call our department at 716-961-6800 to investigate,” Burstein said. “When a bat is discovered in a home or building that could have been near an unattended child, a sleeping person or pet, or someone with a sensory or mental impairment, we consider that a contact and will investigate. We encourage people to capture the bat if they are comfortable doing so and can do it safely. The bat can be sent for rabies testing, as long as the head is not damaged.”
Instructions on how to safely capture a live bat are available from NYSDOH (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YhnV5WJQBA).
Though any mammal can carry and transmit rabies, bats, raccoons, foxes and skunks are always presumed to have rabies in New York. In Erie County, woodchuck, cats, cattle, sheep, deer, beavers and a dog have been found to have rabies in the past three decades. Through May 28, seven bats and one raccoon have tested positive for rabies in Erie County, including urban, suburban and rural areas.
People who have frequent contact with warm-blooded animal saliva or bodily fluids, such as those who work in veterinary clinics, animal grooming, or agriculture should talk to their health care provider about pre-exposure vaccination as a precaution.
Dogs, cats and domestic ferrets 3 months of age and older are required to be vaccinated against rabies in Erie County. ECDOH vaccinated more than 1,100 pets at two free drive-through rabies vaccination clinics in May. More clinics will be scheduled this fall.