Lessons to be Learned from the "Bat on Airplane" Incident

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 10:03am

Vaccinating your Pets against Rabies and other Ways to Avoid Risk of Rabies Exposure

Getting your pets vaccinated against rabies has long been an important public health message. The recent incident of finding a bat on an airplane departing Madison last week underscored how critical such rabies prevention efforts can be. The story started as a YouTube curiosity and quickly developed into a national public health concern. This concern starts with the fact that bats run a risk of being infected with the rabies virus - a disease that affects the central nervous system and almost always proves to be fatal.

When anyone is in an enclosed space with a bat for a period of time, it is prudent to assume that there has been a possibility of exposure. While exposure is generated by a bite or by contact with the animal's saliva via a scratch, not everyone exposed is necessarily aware of such exposure. So if you discover a bat in a bedroom after sleeping in that room, the safest approach is to assume that there was contact, even though you might not be able to confirm it. A common response to finding a bat indoors is to want to get it out or kill it and get rid of it as quickly as possible.

The problem with following one's instincts in this fashion is that without having the bat available for laboratory analysis, there is no way of determining whether or not you have been exposed to rabies. If the bat was able to be tested, and the lab results were negative, you would be off the hook. If they are positive, you would need to get the rabies vaccine.

In the case of the departing flight, the bat was able to escape after the plane landed, which meant that the passengers had some risk of exposure. This triggered the CDC's involvement in contacting the passengers to determine if they had any contact with the bat, a process that has continued through this week.

Following are some basic steps to follow if you have been in an enclosed space with a bat:
• Do everything possible to avoid contact with the bat.
• Do not get rid of the bat!
• If the bat is alive, try to contain it simply by leaving the room and making sure windows and doors are closed.
• If the bat appears to be dead, the safest course is to leave it where it is.
• Call Animal Services Officer Dispatch at (608) 255-2345.

They will take the bat out of your house safely and have it tested to determine whether it has rabies or not. Remember that without the bat, the person bitten or otherwise exposed must undergo a series of rabies shots to avoid the possibility of contracting this fatal disease. If you think you may have been exposed, contact your physician immediately.

This brings us back to one of the basics of preventing the spread of rabies - making sure that your pets are vaccinated against rabies. With this vaccination, which is required by law, your pet will get a level of protection. But even with the vaccination, if your pet is exposed to a potentially rabid animal, it will require veterinary attention.

For more information on rabies see:


For information on bats see:



  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302