Health officials concerned after 3 bats with rabies found in Salt Lake City

Posted at 7:12 PM, Oct 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-21 21:12:50-04

SALT LAKE CITY – Halloween seems like the time to be wary of bats, and now the health department says they are finding high numbers of bats with rabies in Salt Lake County.

According to the Salt Lake County Health Department, three bats tested positive for rabies, and they're warning people to stay away from bats if they see them.

While bats are common in Utah during this season, this year's numbers for rabies are much higher than normal.

“And that was concerning because there were some human exposures,” said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, a medical director with Salt Lake County Health Department.

Dr. Vitek says after any report of a bat exposure, they work with animal control to collect the bat and have it tested. She said it's normal for some bats to have rabies, but the recent findings are cause for concern.

“It’s hard to assess how many bats we have and how many of them are positive, but the fact that we have three of them in pretty close proximity, in such a short amount of time, is pretty concerning,” Dr. Vitek said.

The bats were all found in the downtown area of Salt Lake City.

"We usually do have about three or four a year, but you're talking about throughout the year, and also throughout the county, so it was really unusual to find three positive bats in just a few blocks," Dr. Vitek said.

The Health Department wants to warn people to avoid bats, but zookeepers at Hogle Zoo say bats usually try to avoid humans.

"The only reason that you would see a bat during the day is something's off with the bat; that doesn't necessarily mean it has rabies, but it might not be feeling well," said Janice Thompson, a zookeeper who cares for small mammals and birds at Hogle Zoo.

She says only a sick or injured bat would be on the ground.

And, contrary to Halloween tales: “They really don't want to injure humans or other animals, they just want to go out and forge for some food," Thompson said. "And they're not going to bother any animal or people unless you try to grab them or a dog tries to bite them."

But healthy or sick, dead or alive: Don't touch bats. Instead, call animal control for your area if you see one.

“If you see one that it looks like something is wrong with it, its staying on the ground or lying really low, I would not touch it with your bare hands. That’s the best way to protect yourself,” Thompson said.

Dr. Vitek echoed the need to avoid contact with the animals.

“Even touching the bat can expose you to rabies virus,” she said.

Though bats with rabies can pose a threat, Thompson wants the public to remember they are very important for the environment.

“People are really scared of bats, but honestly they are so important for our environment," she said. "One bat can eat over a thousand mosquitoes in an hour, and all the bats here in Utah, their primary diet is mosquitoes."

The Salt Lake County Health Department says if you or your pets have come in contact with a bat, please give them a call. There are treatments available.

For more information on how to deal with bats in your area, visit Wild Aware Utah.