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Vickroy: Rabid bats a reminder to be proactive about prevention

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Updated: October 28, 2013 7:17AM



Autumn is bat season. And not just because Halloween is coming.

During fall, bats either migrate or get ready to roost for the winter. Either way, they are busy, and the chances of them crossing paths with a human are greater than at other times of the year.

Most of the winged mammalian creatures are harmless. But some can have rabies.

In the past month, rabid bats have been found in Palos Park, Mokena and Evergreen Park.

A reason to panic? Officials say no.

A cause for concern? Officials say yes.

Saturday is World Rabies Day, a day designated by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control for people to focus on rabies prevention. GARC began the initiative in 2007 to bring attention to this preventable disease that still kills more than 55,000 people each year, most of them children and almost all of them from the world’s poorest communities.

The United States does not see the number of rabies cases that some Third World countries do, and local animal care officials attribute that to vaccines. That said, there are and likely always will be animals in the wild that carry the virus.

Donna Alexander, director of Cook County Animal Control, and Leroy Schild, director of Will County Animal Control, say the number of rabid bat findings this year in their jurisdictions is actually lower than last year’s total. But that is no reason to let your guard down.

So far this year, Cook County has confirmed 17 rabid bats, Will County, six.

Last year in Illinois, 63 bats, 4 percent of all bats tested, were positive for rabies, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

While any wild mammals, including raccoons and coyotes, can have rabies and transmit it to humans, Alexander said bats are a species of choice for rabies in Illinois. So are skunk and fox, she said.

“We are watching the skunk population closely, because in Illinois it is estimated to be at its the highest since 1978,” she said. “And 1978 was the last outbreak of skunk rabies in this state.”

Scientists can match specific strains of rabies to different animals, Schild said. Skunk rabies is on the rise in New Mexico, affecting the dog population there. And east of the Ohio Valley, there is a huge problem with raccoon rabies, he said.

But lately in Illinois, there seem to be more cases of bats with rabies.

Dr. Jeffrey Valenti, of Family Pet Clinic in Tinley Park, said in the past five years, he’s had three clients who have had bats come into their homes.

“Perhaps we need to look at why this is happening,” he said.

Meantime, pet owners need to do their part to keep their animals and themselves safe. Valenti said dog owners tend to be more compliant than cat owners, who often say their feline stays indoors most of the time.

“I always tell people that’s a falsity. Who hasn’t had a cat run out the front door?” he said. And increasingly, a pet doesn’t have to go outdoors to encounter a rabid animal; the bats are coming to them.

While he is not obligated to report pet owners who do not comply, Valenti said they should know that if a nonvaccinated pet bites someone, the law requires that the animal be impounded under a veterinarian’s care for 10 days while it is monitored for rabies symptoms.

Such care can be a lot more costly than the $35 to $55 price of a one-year vaccine, he said. Three-year doses run $75 to $115.

But, he added, there are many places, including the county’s clinic, where a pet owner can get low-cost vaccinations.

In Cook County, it is mandatory for all dogs, cats and ferrets to be vaccinated. In Will, all dogs and cats must be up to date on vaccines.

“People think they can get their dog or cat a rabies shot once and be done,” Alexander said. “Not true.”

Because the rabies virus affects a bat’s wings first, an infected bat is usually found floundering close to the ground, providing easy access for pets and children.

If you find a bat in your home, cover it with a bucket or garbage can if you can and get out, Alexander said. Call police or your local animal control office immediately, she said.

Now for the terrifying stuff.

Both Alexander and Schild say a person can be bitten by a rabid bat and never even know it. Many victims have been bitten while they slept. If you don’t know you‘ve been infected, you will not get the necessary treatment and there is a 100 percent chance you will die, Schild said.

“By the time you become symptomatic, it is too late,” he said.

If you suspect you have been bitten or scratched by a rabid animal, you need to seek treatment immediately.

There is no treatment for pets.

If you’re new to this subject, both directors want you to know that rabies is a horrible way to die. It starts with a problem swallowing, which explains why rabid animals often are depicted as foaming at the mouth. They are driven by thirst to lap up water but are unable to swallow, no matter how hard they chew at the water. The resulting foam spills from their mouth.

The virus targets the central nervous system, attacking the brain and causing seizures. Victims typically die in less than two weeks.

“I have never encountered it all my years of practice,” Schild said. “And I never want to.”

For more information, visit www.cookcountygov.com, www.willcountyillinois.com or rabiesalliance.org. Family Pet Clinic is at 17149 S. Harlem Ave., Tinley Park; (708) 614-6500; www.myfamilypetcare.net.



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