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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Bats and rabies

What is rabies and how is it transmitted?

Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system that is almost always fatal once symptoms begin. The virus is found in the saliva of an animal with rabies and is usually transmitted by a bite or scratch. In Washington state, most cases of rabies in animals occur in bats. Most bats, however, do not carry rabies, and most of the bats tested for rabies in Washington are not infected. Because rabies is a life threatening disease, medical advice must be sought promptly if a bat comes into contact with humans or animals.

Rabies may also be carried by other mammals. Wildlife most likely to carry rabies includes skunks, raccoon, foxes, and coyotes. Domestic animals such as cats, dogs, ferrets, horses, cattle, goats, and llamas can also get rabies, usually from the bite of a wild animal. A person bitten by a wild animal or domestic animal should seek medical advice to assess the risk of rabies and to get other needed treatment.

What kind of contact with a bat could transmit rabies?

Many species of bats live in King County and any of them can carry rabies. Rabid bats frequently lose their ability to fly, or do not fly well. That means they may be found on the ground or in water such as a lake or pool, making them more likely to come into contact with people or pets. Rarely, a bat that has rabies can be aggressive. A healthy bat typically avoids any contact with humans or animals and usually will not be found resting on the ground.

Rabies is transmitted when an infected bat bites or scratches a person's skin. Bat bites may not be noticed because bat teeth are very tiny and razor sharp. Examining a person for evidence of a bat bite is unreliable, because a bat bite can be no bigger than a needle prick. Therefore, any direct contact with a bat should be considered a possible rabies exposure.

Bats flying overhead, and bats that have not had direct contact with humans or animals, do not pose a risk for transmitting rabies. If someone wakes up to find a bat in the room, or a bat is found in the room of an unattended small child, an intoxicated or mentally incapacitated person, or pet, the possibility exists that a bat bite, scratch -- or direct contact -- may have occurred.

What should I do if I suspect a bat has bitten, scratched or had direct contact with me (or another person, child or pet)?

When someone has had a bite or scratch from a bat or possible direct contact with a bat, it is called an exposure.

It is very important to attempt to capture a bat that is known or suspected to have exposed a person or pet so that the bat can be tested for rabies. (Touching or picking up a bat without a glove is considered an exposure.) Testing of the bat is important because testing can confirm whether rabies treatment is necessary to prevent rabies.

If exposure of a person is likely to have occurred but the bat is not available for testing, Public Health and health care providers will recommend that the person receive rabies vaccination treatment. Often rabies treatment can be avoided if the bat is tested for rabies.

If you capture a bat after regular work hours, call Public Health on the next workday.

For a LIVE bat
For a DEAD bat
  • Use heavy gloves (like leather work gloves) to place the bat in a sealed can or jar, or place it in a plastic bag that is within another heavy-weight plastic bag such as a zip-lock bag.

  • For a live bat, punch small holes (less than 1/2 inch in diameter) in the container(s) for the bat to breathe.

  • Place the container in a quiet area away from heavy human traffic.

  • Do not refrigerate, freeze or kill a live bat.
  • Use heavy gloves (like leather work gloves) to place the bat in a sealed can or jar, or place it in a plastic bag that is within another heavy-weight plastic bag such as a zip-lock bag.

  • Store in a cooler or refrigerator until you have notified Public Health.

What is the best way to capture a bat?

Bats should be captured only if there has been direct contact with a person or pet or if the bat was found in the room of someone who might have been exposed. Once these bats are captured, they should be tested for rabies infection.

Do not release a live bat or throw out a dead bat that has bitten or scratched, or had direct contact with a person or pet, unless Public Health has told you that it will not be necessary to test the bat.

The following ideas are offered as ways to safely capture a bat:

  1. Never handle a bat with bare hands. Wear thick gloves to pick up a dead or injured bat or pick up the bat with a shovel or dust pan.
  2. For a live bat, wait until the bat has landed. Place an empty can or wastebasket over the bat and slide cardboard underneath to contain the bat.
  3. If the bat is still flying, try gently striking it with a broom or tennis racket in order to knock it down. You can also try to capture it in a net.
  4. Use heavy gloves (like leather work gloves) to place the bat in a sealed can or jar, or place it in a plastic bag that is within another heavy-weight plastic bag such as a zip-lock bag. For a live bat, punch small holes (less than ½ inch in diameter) in the container(s) for the bat to breathe. Place the container in a quiet area away from heavy human traffic. Do not refrigerate, freeze or kill a live bat.
  5. If you need help capturing a bat, certain pest control or nuisance wildlife companies can help you. Be certain that the company is familiar with Public Health guidelines and is willing to turn the bat over for rabies testing if necessary. The following services are experienced with bat control: NW Nuisance Wildlife Control at 1-888-868-3063; Pest Control NW at 425-941-5001; Critter Control at 206-431-6833; Directory of Nuisance Wildlife Control Officers trained and regulated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  6. Dead bats that will be sent to a laboratory for testing should be refrigerated (not frozen) until the laboratory can begin testing. Do not refrigerate, freeze or kill a live bat.

How can I get a bat tested if it may have exposed a person or pet?

To test bats that may have exposed a person - Contact Public Health Communicable Disease Control, Epidemiology and Immunization Section at 206-296-4774 during regular work hours to determine if testing of bats is necessary . Public Health staff will authorize the testing of the bat for rabies. After hours health care providers can call 206-726-2128 to reach Public Health staff for medical advice.

To test a bat in contact with animals - Contact the office of the Public Health Veterinarian at 206-263-8454 or your veterinarian for advice. Testing of bats that have exposed animals is available for a fee through the Oregon State University Diagnostic Laboratory. Veterinarians who need information about the management of pets exposed to bats or how to submit bats for rabies testing can contact the Public Health Veterinarian at 206-263-8454 or after business hours at 206-726-2454.

Information on testing bats at Oregon State University Diagnostic Laboratory.

What do I do with the bat if rabies testing is not needed?

If Public Health has told you that it is not necessary to test the bat and the bat is alive, you can carefully release the bat outside and away from your home. A dead bat should be doubled bagged in plastic bags and disposed of in the household garbage.

If Public Health tells you that it will not be necessary to test the bat, but the bat is injured, your local animal control office may be able to help. A preferred option is to take the injured bat to the PAWS Wildlife Center located in Lynnwood. The PAWS Wildlife Center can be reached by telephoning 425-787-2500, extension 817.

What should I do if the bat is confirmed or suspected to be rabid and a direct exposure has occurred?

When a human has been exposed - - Public Health recommends that the exposed person begin treatment to prevent rabies as soon as possible. Rabies preventive treatment includes one dose of rabies immunoglobulin and four doses of rabies vaccine given according to a fixed schedule over a 14 day time period; persons with weakened immune systems need a fifth dose of vaccine given 28 days following the first dose.

The vaccination regimen is very safe and effective, but the vaccinations must be given on specific days. Rabies vaccinations can be given in most medical offices or clinics. Health care providers can order rabies vaccinations directly from the companies that make rabies vaccine. Some local emergency rooms carry both the rabies immunoglobulin and rabies vaccine. Public Health does not carry the rabies immunoglobulin, but does carry rabies vaccine.

When a dog, cat, or ferret has been exposed - Dogs, cats, and ferrets that are currently vaccinated against rabies should be revaccinated by a veterinarian immediately, kept under the owner's control, and observed for 45 days. Any illness or unusual behavior during this time should be reported to the veterinarian immediately.

Unvaccinated animals should either be humanely put to death or undergo a strict 6 month quarantine. These precautions must be taken because an animal can develop rabies as long as 6 months after the exposure. If the 6 month quarantine is chosen, vaccinate the animal 1 month before release from the quarantine. Any illness during the quarantine period should be reported to the veterinarian and to Public Health immediately.

The office of the Public Health Veterinarian should be consulted at 206-263-8454 to help determine the appropriate management of a pet exposed to a bat.

What can I do to reduce the chance that my family or pets will come in direct contact with bats?

Bats found on the ground may be ill or simply immature flyers that are likely to fly away at dusk. If necessary, these bats can be moved to a quiet place where they will not come in contact with people or pets. Do not touch the bat with your bare hands.

Bats may enter homes accidentally or to roost there. If there are bats in a home, it is important to get them out to avoid possible exposures to rabies. A single bat most likely arrived through an open door or windows without screens. Multiple occurrences may indicate that additional steps are needed to keep the bats out of your home. Pest control services can help get rid of bats in the home. The following are services that are experienced with bat control: Northwest Nuisance Wildlife Control at 1-888-868-3063; Pest Control Northwest at 425-823-2676; Critter Control at 206-431-6833.

Vaccinate your pets to protect them against rabies. In King County, all dogs, cats and ferrets are required to have rabies vaccinations by the time they are four months of age and a year later. Depending on the brand of vaccine used, dog and cat rabies vaccinations may be good for either one or three years. Veterinarians provide a written certificate when an animal has been vaccinated against rabies. Click here for more rabies prevention information for pet owners.

External links

Report all King County cases to Public Health by calling 206-296-4774.

For the general public:

  • Risk of human-to-human rabies transmission
    Rabies is a virus that can affect both humans and other mammals. The virus gets into the body from a bite or scratch and attacks the central nervous system.

  • Pets and rabies
    Dogs, cats, cows, or any warm-blooded animal can pass rabies to people. People usually get rabies from the bite of an infected animal, or from other forms of contact with the animal's saliva.

  • Zoonotic Disease Program
    Zoonotic diseases (also called zoonoses) are infectious diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.

For King County health care providers: