Public Health Officials Remind Montanans that Rabies Remains a Threat
June 29, 2023
State and local public health officials are reminding Montanans to be aware of the risk for exposure to rabies as summer approaches. The risk for potential encounters between humans and wild animals increases during spring and summer because of the time spent hiking and engaging in other outdoor activities.
On June 13, 2023, DPHHS received the first report of a rabid animal this year. A striped skunk in Powder River County tested positive for rabies. In 2022, 13 animals submitted for rabies testing to the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) were positive for rabies (nine bats, three skunks, and one dog).
Humans and animals exposed to bats and skunks are considered at high-risk for rabies infection. While not without risk, bites from domestic animals that are owned and vaccinated for rabies are considered lower-risk exposures.
Rabies is a fatal 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. Human rabies deaths in the United States are rare, according to the CDC, and average approximately one to two deaths per year since the 1990s.
Preventative treatment for rabies is nearly 100 percent successful and has dropped the human rabies death rate dramatically since the turn of the 20th century. The last identified human death due to rabies in Montana occurred in 1997.
“Rabies can be prevented by avoiding physical contact with stray or wild animals and seeking preventive treatment if you think you have been exposed,” said Jessica Lopeman, a registered nurse and epidemiologist with the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). “Rabies is not spread through contact from objects that potentially rabid animals have come into contact with, such as animal food bowls after a skunk has eaten dog food. The most common scenarios that lead to a potential rabies exposure would 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 treatment. If an animal cannot be located, observed, or tested, a person may need to undergo a series of shots to prevent rabies. Preliminary data from 2022 shows that the administration of treatment to prevent rabies infection was recommended to or administered to 210 Montana residents.
All interactions, particularly bites, with a potentially rabid mammal should be reported to the local health departments to assess the risk of rabies exposure and a possible recommendation for preventative treatment. Additionally, any bite wounds should be assessed by a medical provider.
“Any bat that has physical contact with a person, or is found in an area where contact may have occurred but gone undetected, such as a bedroom with a sleeping adult or child, should be tested for rabies when possible,” 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.”
DPHHS recommends everyone following these tips to prevent exposure to rabies:
Do not feed or handle wild animals, especially bats. Bats are the leading cause of rabies deaths in people in the United States, and bite marks or scratches may not be noticeable to someone who has contacted a bat. 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.” It’s possible to have an exposure to a bat while sleeping, so if you find a bat in your house, it’s recommended that you contain the animal and contact your local public health for further instructions.
Avoid animal bites from domestic animals. Teach children to never approach stray animals and should always ask an owner’s permission prior to petting an animal. Another common source of bite exposures are adults attempting to rescue a feral animal. 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 often have more contact with wild animals than dogs. All dogs and cats should be up-to-date with their rabies vaccine and have a current rabies certificate.
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, loosely hanging clear plastic sheeting or bird netting over these areas. This allows the bats to crawl out and leave the building, but they 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 after August or in the fall after bats have left for the season.
Watch for abnormal wild 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 or an animal control agency if you think it may pose a danger.
For additional information on rabies visit the DPHHS website at dphhs.mt.gov or contact your local health department.