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Rabies risk low but keep aware

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Rabies isn’t a problem here, with sources at the NorWest Animal Clinic here suggesting local veterinarians haven’t come across the virus in animals in years.

But that doesn’t mean the public should let their awareness of the disease dissolve, warned Terry Whiting, a disease control veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg.

Although Agriculture Canada’s rabies control program has been effective, the disease is still out there.

It’s rarely seen in terrestrial wildlife such as foxes and skunks any more, but what seems to be on the rise in North America is a bat rabies variant.

Big brown bats and silver-haired bats are the most common species to carry rabies.

Whiting cautiously estimated that out of every 100 big brown bats, only one would be rabies positive, while one out of every five silver-haired bats would test positive.

But despite its high rabies rate, the silver-haired bat is rarely seen. Unlike its colonized cousin, it is a solitary creature living away from its own kind and humans.

“Their primary habitat is in dead [upright] trees under the bark. It is very rare to find one,” Whiting stressed.

But even though the risk is very low, Whiting is still keen on making people understand how bat rabies can be contracted.

“People are well-informed about rabies in raccoons, foxes, and skunks and much less well-informed about bat rabies,” he noted Monday from his office.

But it’s not the flying bat that is the focus of concern. When a bat gets rabies, it won’t be in the air for long.

“Bats have no intermediate host. They develop neurological signs of the disease and can’t fly,” Whiting explained.

A downed bat, often tablespoon size, is still capable of biting. And because a bat’s teeth are very tiny, a puncture to the skin could go unnoticed.

“Bats eat mayflies. They don’t need big molars,” reasoned Whiting. “In many cases, [the medical field] isn’t sure how people contract bat rabies because it’s possible to be bitten and not know it.

“Don’t handle bats that cannot fly,” he stressed, noting bats on the ground are of particular interest to children and cats.

Parents should teach children to leave downed bats alone, and to report the sight of one to a grown-up. He also stressed the importance of vaccinating house pets against rabies.

“Bats flopping around are attractive to your pets, especially cats. They’re cat bait,” he said. “So make sure you [protect] them.”

CFIA statistics show 249 rabies positive bats were confirmed in Ontario during a 10-year period from 1988-98. Some 231 of them were big brown bats.

Only three accounts of positive bat rabies have been recorded in Northwestern Ontario since 1993.

Meanwhile, Whiting said rabies in terrestrial animals can be recognized by the following symptoms--if the animal has lost its fear of people; is out in areas they shouldn’t be (i.e., lost its nocturnal instinct); or if the animal is circling or displaying lameness.

Reports of possible rabies sightings can be forwarded to the CFIA district office at 274-5214.

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