What should I do if my dog gets scratched or bitten by a bat?
Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV) has received media attention again recently, with a bat in Katherine testing positive for this disease. If bats are left alone and not touched, there is very minimal risk from bats, however getting dogs to do this is not always easy…..
ABLV is closely related to Rabies virus, but is distinct from it. Based on testing to date, there is a much higher likelihood of finding ABLV in sick, injured or orphaned bats (5 - 10%) compared to the normal wild population (< 1%). Unfortunately it is also more likely that dogs will try to catch unwell or injured bats, as healthy bats are less likely to be on the ground, or low down in the trees where dogs can reach them.
ABLV is considered a zoonotic disease (ie. it can be transmitted to other species of animal, including humans). It is usually transmitted in saliva from a bite, or a scratch from a bat. There have been three reported deaths in Australia of people who contracted ABLV after contact with bats, and it has recently been identified in two horses.
It is not uncommon for dogs to catch, or try to catch bats, and for them to get bitten or scratched in the process. To date there have been no confirmed cases of Lyssavirus in dogs or cats in Australia. In theory however, transmission is possible. If transmission to a dog or cat did occur, they then would have the potential to transmit the virus to humans. Although the chance of this happening is low, if it did occur, the outcome could be fatal, so it is important to be aware of the disease, and take appropriate precautions.
What to do if your pet comes into contact with a bat
1) Do not touch the bat! If the bat is still alive, contact Wildcare to organise a carer to collect the bat (they have been training in safe bat handling and will be vaccinated against rabies).
2) Clean the wound (this is the most effective way of reducing transmission):
4) Dead bats can then be taken directly to the DPIF Veterinary Lab in Berrimah for testing for Lyssavirus. A negative result will mean that no further action is required; your pet will not have contracted the virus.
5) If the bat is collected by Wildcare, and a veterinarian decides that ABLV infection is probable, the bat is likely to be euthanased. You should be able to request to take the bat the DPIF veterinary lab for testing.
6) If the bat is not available for testing, then it is possible that your pet could be infected with the virus (though the risk is low).
In most cases, it is recommended that you monitor your pet for the next 2 years (as ABLV can potentially have an incubation period of weeks to years, ie. it may take up to 2 years for signs to appear). Any changes in behaviour, or illness (particularly neurological problems) should be discussed with your vet. Your vet should be advised of previous contact with a bat.
As there is no way to tell immediately if your pet has become infected, veterinary examination at the time of bat contact is not recommended, unless the injury is severe enough to require medical treatment.
The only way to test for ABLV, is by post-mortem examination of the brain. Thus the only way to be 100% certain that the pet poses no risk to people would be euthanasia of the pet. This would be an extreme measure in light of the fact that there have not been any confirmed cases in dogs, but it would be the only way to ensure that there is no risk.
Rabies vaccinations are likely to reduce the risk of an infected animal developing clinical disease; however they have not been approved for this use in the Northern Territory.
Bats are a very important part of our ecosystem. Please don’t be unduly concerned about bats, but do treat them with respect and avoid touching them or disturbing them. Do your best to help pets do the same by keeping them inside at night. Remember that bats are protected by law and you are not allowed to kill, or harm them in any way.