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Bats: Helpful Insect Eaters & Infrequent Rabies Carriers

Tuesday, August 05, 2014 | 05:41am

NASHVILLE – The recent finding of a bat infected with rabies in Tennessee is a reminder these helpful, flying insect eaters should not be handled by humans. Although only a few bats are identified with rabies in Tennessee each year, it can only take one contact with an infected bat to transmit the fatal disease. The last human case of rabies in Tennessee occurred over a decade ago when contact with a bat occurred but was not reported.

“Most bats do not carry rabies,” said TDH Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, PhD. “While the odds of encountering an infected bat are low, it’s best to never touch one and to report any known or suspected contact with a bat to your local health department. Bats are interesting and environmentally important when it comes to eating insects and pollinating plants but they should never be handled.”

Bats can eat a thousand insects in an hour and are helpful in controlling mosquitoes. They feed at night, emitting high-frequency sounds that bounce off objects to help them find food. Their flight pattern, which seems erratic, is actually part of the feeding process.

Bats vary in color and may be brown, reddish brown, gray or white. Their heads may resemble dogs or foxes and they are generally social animals, living in colonies. They prefer dark places during daylight hours, particularly caves, buildings and holes in trees. They should not be disturbed while they are sleeping. In recent years, a large number of bats have been killed in the U.S. due to white nose syndrome. This is a fungus that can spread through bat populations quickly, impacting a community’s insect population. 

“Like other mammals that carry rabies, bats can transmit the virus through their saliva,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Once common in Tennessee, rabies has been significantly reduced by effective efforts to vaccinate domestic animals and control raccoon rabies in eastern Tennessee. Those who believe they may have been exposed to a bat or other mammal with rabies should immediately contact their healthcare provider or health department. Urgency is important as post-exposure prophylaxis is effective in preventing rabies. Post-exposure prophylaxis involves vaccine administered by injections, similar to routine vaccinations, during separate visits to your healthcare provider.”

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. TDH has facilities in all 95 counties and provides direct services for more than one in five Tennesseans annually as well as indirect services for everyone in the state, including emergency response to health threats, licensure of health professionals, regulation of health care facilities and inspection of food service establishments.  Learn more about TDH services and programs at

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