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Health Alert: Environmental Health Sees Increase in Rabies Calls; Cautions Public to Avoid Contact with Wildlife, Report Incidents

(ITHACA, NY, July 28, 2022) – The Tompkins County Health Department urges residents to be aware of and avoid contact with bats and other rabies vector species.  A small number of rabid bats are confirmed in Tompkins County every year. As the weather warms and bats become more active, the risk of encountering bats increases. Attics and crawl spaces heat up in the summer months and bats seek cooler locations on the lower floors of homes.

In certain situations, the bite from a bat may not be readily apparent. This includes bats that are found in a room with a sleeping person or bats that are found in the presence of an unattended child or a person with a sensory impairment. Should a bat land on a person, it should be captured and submitted for testing. Bats that have contact with unvaccinated pets, or those whose rabies vaccination have lapsed, also present a concern.

Avoid the serious, potentially fatal, risk of rabies by safely capturing and submitting for laboratory testing any bat found in a home that may have come in contact with humans or pets. If the bat is found in a public area, if it is found near a pet, a child, a sleeping person, or someone with a sensory impairment, or you are not sure if contact occurred, capture the bat and contact the Health Department.

To safely catch a bat:

  • If indoors, close windows, room and closet doors, turn on lights, and wait for the bat to land.
  • While wearing heavy gloves, cover the bat with a pail, coffee can, or similar container. 
  • If you spot a grounded bat outdoors, you can prevent further contact with people and pets by covering it with a pail or similar container. 
  • Immediately call the Tompkins County Health Department at (607) 274-6688 to determine whether testing of the bat is necessary, or whether the bat can be safely released. Environmental Health staff are available after hours to receive these calls and provide guidance.  
  • If the bat cannot be captured, contact the Health Department to determine whether Rabies Post Exposure treatment is necessary.

An 80-second NYS DOH video on the proper technique for safely capturing a bat found in a home is available on the Health Department website.

The Tompkins County Health Department also reports several incidents where residents are or have attempted caring for baby raccoons and other wildlife and warns against the practice. In addition to the risk of contracting rabies from vector species like raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats, it is illegal in New York to harbor wild animals. Tompkins County is home to several NYS licensed rehabilitators, who are legally allowed to take in and care for injured and orphaned wildlife. These rehabilitators should be called before anyone attempts to handle wildlife.

Rabies is normally transmitted by the bite of a wild or domestic rabid mammal. The incubation period for rabies is generally one to three months and orphaned wildlife can appear healthy during that time while potentially shedding the virus. Exposures can also occur if saliva from a rabid animal enters the body through a mucous membrane, a wound that bled within 24 hours prior to the exposure, or an older wound showing signs of a bacterial infection. Do not handle pets or objects that may be contaminated with saliva from a potentially rabid animal without wearing protective gloves. Wash your hands immediately with soap and water if you do touch the saliva. Remember that a cut incurred while skinning a rabid mammal could also result in rabies transmission, as nervous tissue of an infected animal will carry the virus.

The Health Department reminds everyone to:

  1. Avoid contact with any unfamiliar cats or dogs and any wild animals.
  2. All cats, dogs and ferrets must have initial rabies vaccinations administered no later than four months of age.  Keep vaccinations current!
  3. Report the following incidents to the Tompkins County Health Department at 274-6688:
    • All animal bites or scratches. If you are bitten by cat or dog, be sure to obtain owner’s contact information.
    • Any human or pet contact with saliva or other potentially infectious material (brain tissue, spinal tissue, or cerebro-spinal fluid) of wild animals or any animal suspected of having rabies.
    • All bat bites, scratches, or any mere skin contact with a bat, or a bat in a room with a child, or sleeping or impaired person.

Further information can be found at:
tompkinscountyny.gov/health/eh/rabies

The Tompkins County Health Department is your partner for a healthy community. Find us online at TompkinsCountyNY.gov/health, and follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TompkinsPublicHealth and on Twitter at @TompkinsHealth. Sign up to receive COVID-19 updates or other county announcements via email or text.

Media contact: Samantha Hillson, shillson@tompkins-co.org

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