BSAVA have issued a reminder to primary care small animal practice staff to ensure they know how to work safely with bats. The reminder comes following the recent publication of statistics on rabies in UK bats by Defra. The most recent case of rabies in a bat in Great Britain was in July 2020 in Wimbourne, Dorset and there were four cases in 2019.
Like many wild animals, bats can carry a number of different pathogens, including European Bat Lyssaviruses (EBLVs) 1 and 2 – also referred to as bat rabies. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of infected bats and is usually spread to humans or other mammals by the bite of an infected bat. The virus may also enter the body via open wounds or mucous membranes.
Whilst the risk of transmission to humans is generally considered low, those handling bats may be at an increased risk of contracting the disease. Individuals who regularly handle bats should be vaccinated against rabies. Those who are not vaccinated against the disease should assume that all bats are possible carriers of rabies. Individuals handling bats should wear gloves of a suitable thickness for the species of bat they are handling to avoid being bitten or scratched. Further information on how to safely contain and handle a bat can be found on the Bat Conservation Trust website.
In the event that an individual is bitten or scratched by a bat or exposed to bat saliva or nervous tissue in any other way, they should seek immediate medical advice. The contact area should be washed with soap and water, and any wounds must be disinfected. Further information can be found on the APHA, PHE and NHS websites.
In 2008, a case involving an injured bat carrying EBLV type 2 was treated by a vet and her staff, who were unaware of the potential of rabies risk from bats. The bat handlers had previously been vaccinated as recommended by the Department of Health but despite sustaining a needlestick injury during surgery, the vet and her staff had neither sought nor received post-exposure prophylaxis.1
Professor Ian Ramsey, president of the BSAVA, said: “Although this case was 12 years ago it is a pertinent reminder of why we need to be well-prepared when handling bats. Whilst the risk of human rabies infection from bats is low, the publication of the new statistics show that EBLVs are circulating in a small number of wild bats. Injured bats are often presented to small animal vets, so we have taken this opportunity to remind our members and others of the potential risks of rabies transmission, and how to mitigate against these.”
For more advice on the handling and treatment of wildlife casualties including bats, we advise vets to consult a reference book such as the BSAVA Manual of Wildlife Casualties.