Warm weather brings humans into contact with wild animals, increases risk of rabies exposure
Each year, the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) sees increasing reports of potential rabies exposures from domestic pets and wild animals with warmer summer weather, as more Erie County residents spend time in the great outdoors.
This summer season is no different, as ECDOH is receiving a steady stream of calls about bites and scratches from wildlife and domestic pets.
“Any bite or exposure to the saliva or nerve tissue of any warm-blooded animal, i.e., mammals, can transmit rabies,” said Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein. “The rabies virus is 100% fatal to humans if a post-exposure treatment is not given, is given too late, or not given correctly.”
ECDOH noted “post-exposure prophylaxis” is a series of four or five doses of rabies vaccine along with immunoglobulin that, when given in time, is extremely effective in preventing an individual from developing rabies.
Burstein explained, “Our environmental health division and epidemiology office are highly experienced in investigating reports we receive from Erie County residents and physicians, and ready to make recommendations about whether or not post-exposure rabies treatment is necessary.”
Any Erie County resident who touches a wild mammal or is bitten by any animal should call ECDOH at 716-961-6800. After an investigation, if vaccine is needed, ECDOH ensures the exposed person can receive it without any out-of-pocket costs, regardless of health insurance coverage or ability to pay.
“We hear from residents who are trying to rehabilitate young animals, like baby raccoons or baby foxes, and even bringing them into public spaces or passing around to friends,” said Senior Public Health Sanitarian and Rabies, Disease and Vector Control Program Director Peter Tripi. “Touching and feeding wild animals puts your health at significant risk, and will likely not benefit the animal. Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator; they are best trained to help abandoned or injured wildlife.”
Wildlife rehabilitators, volunteers licensed by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, are the only people legally allowed to receive and treat distressed wildlife.
ECDOH added, “Bats are always assumed to be rabid so, if someone discovers a bat in their house that could have been near an unattended child, a sleeping person, or someone with a sensory or mental impairment, that is considered a contact and should also be reported to the ECDOH at 716-961-6800. If the bat can be caught by an adult safely without damaging the bat’s head, the bat can be tested for rabies to rule out an exposure.”
If professional help is not available, capture the bat safely as ECDOH described below:
√ You will need leather work gloves, a coffee can or similar hard sided container, sturdy cardboard and tape.
√ When the bat lands, move toward it slowly. While wearing gloves, put the container or coffee can over the bat.
√ Then, slide the cardboard under the container.
√ Tape the lid to the container and punch holes in the lid, allowing the bat to breathe.
√ Do not attempt to kill or crush the bat. The skull of the bat must be intact for testing.
√ If the bat is not alive, it must be refrigerated, not frozen.
√ Do not use towels or blankets to capture bats; many people have been bitten through the fabric doing this.
√ It is not advised to release a bat that has invaded your home.
√ Contact ECDOH (716-961-6800) for questions and to arrange for rabies testing.
The New York State Department of Health offers a video on how to capture a bat safely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YhnV5WJQBA.
Raccoons, foxes and skunks are also presumed to have rabies in New York state. Any mammal can carry and transmit rabies. In Erie County, woodchuck, cats, cattle, sheep, deer, beavers and a dog have been found to have rabies in the past three decades.
√ Teach children never to handle wild animals and animals that they do not know. "Love your own, leave other animals alone" is a good rule for children to follow.
√ Wash any cut or bite from an animal with soap and water, and seek medical help right away.
√ Stop bats from entering your homes, churches, schools and other similar areas where they might come in contact with people and pets.
Be a responsible pet owner:
•Keep vaccinations current for all dogs, cats and ferrets;
•Keep your cats and ferrets inside and always watch your dogs when outside;
•Call animal control to remove stray animals from your neighborhood; and
•Have your pets spayed or neutered.
ECDOH noted, “People who have frequent contact with warm-blooded animal saliva or bodily fluids, such as those who work in veterinary clinics, animal control, animal grooming or agriculture, should talk to their health care provider about pre-exposure vaccination as a precaution.”
Dogs, cats and domestic ferrets 4 months of age and older are required to be vaccinated against rabies in Erie County. ECDOH holds free rabies vaccination clinics in the spring and fall. Fall dates will be announced later this summer.
√ Erie County Department of Health, rabies: http://www.erie.gov/health/rabies
√ Erie County Department of Health, bats: http://www2.erie.gov/health/index.php?q=bats