Rabies in bats: how to spot it and report it
Signs that may suggest rabies in bats, what to do if you spot them and measures to prevent exposing yourself to the disease.
It is possible, although rare, for a bat infected with rabies to pass the disease on to other mammals, including humans.
The most recent case of rabies in a bat in Great Britain was in September 2016.
Rabies in bats is a notifiable disease. That means if you suspect it you must tell the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) immediately. Failure to do so is an offence.
Signs that a bat may have rabies
Infected bats may not show any signs of rabies. Infection can only be confirmed in a laboratory.
But clinical signs in bats may include:
- behaviour changes: infected animals are prone to more aggression
- disorientation and difficulty flying (infected bats may be injured as a result)
- eyes taking on a staring expression
How rabies is spread
Rabies is present in the saliva of infected bats and is usually spread by the bite of an infected bat.
The disease can also be spread if the saliva of an infected animal gets into open wounds or mucous membranes such as the nostrils, mouth and lips, eyelids and ears.
Risk to humans from infected bats
Humans can catch rabies from a bat, although this is very unusual as the disease is very rare among bats in Great Britain.
In humans symptoms of the disease include:
- anxiety, headaches and fever in early stages
- spasms of the swallowing muscles making it difficult or impossible to drink
- breathing difficulties
There are vaccinations against rabies, and the disease can normally be prevented if you are treated soon after exposure. But once signs of rabies appear, there is no treatment. Past human cases have been fatal.
Read the NHS guide to rabies for more information about the disease in humans.
How to avoid catching rabies from a bat
You should be vaccinated against rabies if you regularly handle bats.
If you have not been vaccinated against the disease:
- assume that all bats are possible carriers of rabies
- avoid touching bats, living or dead, whenever possible
- if you must touch a bat, follow the Bat Conservation Trust guidance and wear thick gloves to avoid being bitten or scratched
If you are bitten or scratched by a bat
If you have been bitten or scratched by a bat, or exposed to bat saliva or nervous tissue in any other way, you must:
- wash the wound or contact area with soap and water
- disinfect the wound
- contact a doctor immediately who will decide whether you need treatment
If you find a dead bat
If you find a dead bat:
- do not directly handle the bat if possible
- contact the Bat Conservation Trust Helpline on 0345 1300 228 for help
- if you have to touch the bat follow the Bat Conservation Trust guidance and use thick gloves
If your pet finds a bat
It is possible, although very rare, for infected bats to pass rabies to other animals including pets.
If your pet catches a bat, keep your pet under observation.
If your pet falls sick or starts behaving unusually, you must contact your vet immediately. Your vet will tell APHA if he or she suspects your pet has rabies.
If you suspect rabies in a bat
If you report suspicion of rabies in a bat, APHA vets will investigate and may submit the bat for testing to see whether the signs were caused by rabies.
Monitoring rabies in bats in Great Britain
APHA tests dead bats submitted by the public to monitor how widespread the disease is in Great Britain.
Only 13 infected bats have been found in more than 12,000 tests since 1986, so the risk of catching rabies from a bat is very low.
Published: 26 August 2014
Updated: 6 September 2016
- Updated information on when the most recent case of rabies in a bat in Great Britain was.
- Updated the information on the number of case of rabies in a bat.
- Minor change to reflect that the most recent case of rabies in a bat in Great Britain was in July 2015.
- Updated Bat Conservation Trust helpline number
- AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
- First published.