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Bats and Bugs Oh My! by Melanie Thompson

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Bats and Bugs

By Melanie Thompson

I’m just going to put this out there—bats are creepy. As a former fisheries biologist, I appreciate that each bat will eat 6,000 – 8,000 mosquito-sized insects every night. I don’t particularly care for mosquitoes, after all. But bats’ weird wing-flapping and odd chirping sounds are very disconcerting, especially when they surprise you by flapping and chirping through your house. But what should you do if that happens?

The biologist in me says, “Capture the creature and let it go.” The public health professional in me says, “Squish its body, save its head and take it in for rabies testing.” Which way is the ‘right’ way to handle the situation? It’s hard to say, really, but there are some facts we can use to make that decision. Let’s talk about this from the environmental preservation side of things first.

There are over 1,000 species of bats in the world. In Nebraska, there are only 13 species of bats. As notorious insect eaters, these mammals play an important role in controlling various insects—I mentioned mosquitoes, but they will also eat cucumber beetles, June bugs, stinkbugs and leafhoppers, to name a few. We need the insect control that bats give us!

If you tend toward wanting to let the bats go when you find them in your house, it’s very important that you take your safety into consideration. Only handle the bats while wearing thick gloves; use blankets to capture the animals and then safely release them outdoors. Most bats can’t fly from the ground, so you’ll need to place them in a tree or on a surface at least 2- to 3-feet off the ground.  As they drop from that surface, they will be able to spread their wings and catch flight.

Let’s switch over to the public health side of bats. Truly, the vast majority of bats don’t have rabies. According to the CDC, even though you can’t tell if a bat has rabies by looking at it, of those bats who looked weak or sick or who had been captured by a cat, only 6% had rabies. The only way to tell if a bat has rabies is to have it tested.

The thing is, rabies is almost 100% fatal if not treated. That’s why public health professionals will almost always tell you to take a captured bat to a veterinarian so that he or she can prepare it and ship it off for testing. In Nebraska, the veterinarian will take the bat that is brought in, prepare it for testing and ship it to the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for confirmation of rabies. Though you don’t have to pay for the rabies test itself if you were exposed to the bat (you touched it with bare skin, it scratched or bit you, etc.), you will have to pay to have the bat prepared and shipped to the lab. Depending upon where you live and the veterinarian that prepares the bat, the charge could be upwards of $100.

Does your veterinarian need/want you to bring the bat into them alive? No, they really don’t. But you need to leave the head intact so that it can be tested for rabies. But, you say, “I heard that you can’t kill bats in Nebraska.” Well, that’s not true, either. I called the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Norfolk; you can’t kill the endangered bat species, but you can kill the rest of them. And we do have an endangered bat species that we could potentially find in Nebraska, the northern long-eared bat. If you find a bat flying around your home, and it’s not this particular bat, then you’re not doing anything wrong by killing it if you can’t release it.

You can only catch rabies if you come into contact with an infected bat’s saliva or blood. But you could potentially catch another disease, histoplasmosis, when cleaning up after bats. There are steps you can take, though, to make cleaning up large amounts of guano (or bat poop!) safe for you, including wearing a respirator (mask), gloves and making sure to wet down the surface before you start cleaning up their messes. This Question and Answer form from a talk about bats in schools has some great information and links on how to clean up after bats

In the end, bats are mostly safe, but you can never tell just by looking at them if they are sick with rabies or not. If a bat has touched your bare skin, if one has bitten you or if you or your children wake up in a room with bats, you need to try to catch the bat in question, kill it carefully and take it to your veterinarian to start the process of getting it tested for rabies.

As a final note, I’m going to leave you with one more terrific resource put out by UNL extension on the dangers and benefits of bats and also of ways that you can try to exclude the bats from your home.

As always, if you live in our health district have any questions about bats, you can call our health department at 402-529-2233 or email 

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Elkhorn Logan Valley
Public Health Department
2104 21st Circle / PO Box 779, Wisner, NE 68791
Phone: 402.529.2233  - or -  877.379.4400
Fax: 402.529.2211
After Hours: 402.841.8110