State and local public health officials are reminding Montanans to be aware of the risk for exposure to rabies as summer approaches. With the arrival of spring weather and an increase in outdoor recreation, more and more Montanans are enjoying the outdoors. This increases the risk for potential encounters between humans and wild animals because of the time spent hiking and engaging in other outdoor activities.
Rabies is a fatal disease. The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected warm-blooded mammals and is usually transmitted to people and other animals through a bite. Human rabies deaths in the US are rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and average approximately one to two deaths per year.
Efforts to control rabies through vaccination of pets and the availability of an effective preventative treatment for human rabies after an exposure have resulted in a dramatic reduction of human rabies cases, from more than 100 annually in the early 1900’s to just one or two per year since 1960. The last identified human death in Montana occurred in 1997.
“Rabies can be prevented by avoiding physical contact with stray or wild animals and seeking preventive treatment if you think you have been exposed,” said Jen Miller, a registered nurse with the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). “Rabies is not spread through indirect contact from objects that potentially rabid animals have come into contact with, such as animal food bowls after a skunk has eaten dog food. The most common scenarios that lead to a potential rabies exposure would include sleeping with bats in the room or approaching wild or domestic animals to attempt to pet or handle them.”
On March 16, 2021, DPHHS received the first report of a rabid animal this year when a skunk in Yellowstone county tested positive for rabies. In 2020, 13 animals submitted for testing to the Montana Department of Livestock were positive for rabies (12 bats and one skunk). Human and animal exposures to bats and skunks are considered a high risk for rabies infection. While not without risk, bites from domestic animals that are owned and vaccinated are low risk exposures.
If someone is bitten by a domestic dog, cat or ferret, the animal can be observed for signs of rabies, almost always avoiding the need for treatment. If an animal cannot be located, observed or tested, a person may need to undergo a series of shots to prevent rabies. Preliminary data from 2020 shows that the administration of treatment to prevent infection was recommended to or administered to 174 Montana residents. All exposures to an animal capable of transmitting rabies should be assessed by the local health departments for risk of rabies infection and a possible recommendation for preventative treatment.
DPHHS reminds everyone of the following rabies prevention tips:
Do not feed or handle wild animals, especially bats. Bats are a great rabies concern in Montana because a bite may not be noticeable. Teach children never to touch wild animals or handle bats, even dead ones. Ask children to tell an adult if they see or find a bat. Do not allow children to bring bats or other wild animals to school for “Show and Tell.”
Avoid animal bites from domestic animals. Teach children to never approach an animal at large, and to always ask an owner’s permission prior to petting an animal. Another common source of bite exposures are adults attempting to rescue a feral animal. Sick or injured animals that have not been socialized can become aggressive when someone attempts to handle them.
Vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies. Cats are especially susceptible to rabies exposure as a result of more contact with wild animals than dogs. All dogs and cats should have a current rabies certificate.
Bat-proof your house. Bats must not be allowed in living areas of your home. Put screens on all windows, doors and chimneys to prevent bats from entering. You can prevent bats from roosting in attics or buildings by covering outside entry points, loosely hanging clear plastic sheeting or bird netting over these areas. Bats crawl out and leave, but cannot re-enter. To avoid trapping any young bats who will die or try to make their way into your rooms, seal the openings permanently after August or in the fall after bats have left for the season.
Watch for abnormal wild animal behavior. Most wild animals avoid humans and seeing skunks and bats during the daytime is rare. If you see an animal acting strangely, leave it alone and contact law enforcement or an animal control agency if you think it may pose a danger.
“Any bat that has physical contact with a person, or is found in an area where contact may have occurred but gone undetected, such as a bedroom with a sleeping adult or child, should be tested for rabies when possible,” Miller said. “Do not damage the head of the bat, because the brain is needed for the rabies test. DPHHS does not recommend testing bats or other animals for rabies if there has not been any exposure to humans or domestic animals. If you or your child has any contact with a bat or find a bat in your home, or are bitten or scratched by any wild or stray animal, contact your health care provider or local health department for appropriate follow-up.”
For additional information on rabies visit the DPHHS website at www.dphhs.gov or contact your local health department.