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State Health Officials Remind Montanans About Rabies Threat

State and local public health officials are reminding Montanans to be aware of rabies exposure risks as summer approaches. The potential for encounters between humans and wild animals increases during spring and summer months as Montanans spend increased time engaging in outdoor activities.

Rabies is a fatal, but preventable, disease. The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected warm-blooded mammals and is usually transmitted to people and other animals through a bite. Post-exposure prophylaxis, a series of injections administered after exposure, has a 100% success rate in preventing rabies infection.

“Rabies can be prevented by avoiding physical contact with bats and stray or wild animals, and consulting public health about seeking post-exposure prophylaxis if you think you may have been exposed,” said Jessica Lopeman, a registered nurse and epidemiologist with the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The use of post-exposure prophylaxis has dropped the human rabies death rate dramatically since the turn of the century. Human rabies deaths in the United States are rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and average approximately one to two deaths per year since the 1990’s. The last human death in Montana attributed to rabies occurred in 1997.

According to preliminary data, post-exposure prophylaxis was recommended or administered to 238 Montana residents in 2023.

On April 24, DPHHS received the first report of a rabid animal this year when a cow in Powder River County tested positive for rabies. This cow was likely infected with rabies through interaction with a rabid skunk or bat. It is uncommon for livestock to test positive for rabies, though a Montana horse tested positive for rabies in 2021.

Human and animal exposures to bats and skunks are considered high risk for rabies transmission. In 2023, 25 animals submitted for testing to the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) tested positive for rabies, including 23 bats and two skunks. While not completely without risk, bites from domestic animals that are owned and vaccinated are lower risk exposures.

“Rabies is not spread through indirect contact from objects that potentially rabid animals have come into contact with, such as animal food bowls after a skunk has eaten dog food,” Lopeman said. “The most common rabies exposure scenarios include sleeping with bats in the room or approaching wild or domestic animals to attempt to pet or handle them.”

If someone is bitten by a domestic dog, cat, or ferret, the animal can be observed for signs of rabies, almost always avoiding the need for the exposed individual to undergo the series of shots to prevent rabies. If an animal cannot be located, observed, or tested, a person may be advised to undergo post-exposure prophylaxis.

All exposures to an animal capable of transmitting rabies should be assessed by the local health departments for risk of rabies transmission and a possible recommendation for post-exposure prophylaxis.

DPHHS reminds everyone to follow these tips to reduce the risk of rabies exposure: Do not feed or handle wild animals, especially bats. Bats are a substantial rabies concern in Montana because a bite may not be noticeable. Teach children never to touch wild animals or handle bats, even dead ones. Ask children to tell an adult if they see or find a bat. Do not allow children to bring bats or other wild animals to school for “Show and Tell.”

Avoid animal bites from domestic or feral animals. Teach children to never approach an unfamiliar animal and to always ask an owner’s permission prior to petting an animal. Attempting to rescue a feral animal is also a common source of bite exposure. Sick or injured animals can become aggressive when someone attempts to handle them.

Vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies. Cats are especially susceptible to rabies exposure because they tend to have more contact with bats and wild animals than dogs do. All dogs and cats should have a current rabies certificate. Work with your local veterinarian on rabies prevention in domestic animals and report any potential rabies exposures. Rabies vaccination of animals can prevent rabies transmission to humans.

Bat-proof your house. Bats must not be allowed in living areas of your home. Put screens on all windows, doors, and chimneys to prevent bats from entering. You can prevent bats from roosting in attics or buildings by covering outside entry points with loosely hanging clear plastic sheeting or bird netting. Bats can crawl out and leave the house but cannot re-enter. To avoid trapping any young bats who will die or try to make their way into your rooms, seal the openings permanently in the fall after bats have left for the season.

Watch for abnormal animal behavior. Most wild animals avoid humans and seeing skunks and bats during the daytime is rare. If you see an animal acting strangely, leave it alone and contact law enforcement, an animal control agency, or your local Fish, Wildlife & Parks office if you think it may pose a danger. There are many animal diseases that could cause animals to act differently, including rabies, distemper, and avian influenza; it’s best to let animal experts assess an animal that is sick.

“Any bat that has physical contact with a person, or a bat that is found in an area where undetected contact may have occurred, such as a bedroom with a sleeping adult or child, should be tested for rabies,” Lopeman said. “Do not damage the head of the bat, because the brain is needed for the rabies test.”

DPHHS does not recommend testing bats or other animals for rabies if there has not been any exposure to humans or domestic animals.

“If you or your child has any contact with a bat, you find a bat in your home, or you are bitten or scratched by any wild or stray animal, contact your health care provider for appropriate medical follow-up,” Lopeman stressed. “Contact your local health department for guidance on how to safely collect a bat involved in a human exposure for testing.”

For additional information on rabies, visit Rabies (mt. gov) or contact your local health department.

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