Are Bats Dangerous to Humans?

Fear of bats (aka chiroptophobia) is very common, but is it justified?

Though bats are mostly harmless, they have been known to attack and bite humans. Bats are also notorious vectors of some pretty serious zoonotic diseases (such as rabies and Ebola) which can be transmitted to those they bite.

However, bats still don’t pose any significant danger to humans. Bats are usually shy creatures and are highly unlikely to attack you. Even if a bat does bite you (which they will usually only do if disturbed or handled), only a very small percentage of bats carry rabies.

So, how likely is a bat attack, and can you tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it?

Why are people afraid of bats?

Fear of bats is common and widespread. People with a very severe fear (i.e. a phobia) may suffer intense anxiety when they see or think about bats but, for most people, these winged rodents are only vaguely disturbing.

But what exactly is it about bats that draws a collective shudder from the human race? Is it their membranous wings, their mouse-like ears, their snouted faces? Or, is it their reputation as carriers of fearsome diseases, such as rabies?

The answer is that it’s probably a bit of everything, with a little cultural conditioning thrown in on top.

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The fact that bat fear is so common is probably down to their ancient role in our horror stories, the best known of which is, undoubtedly, Dracula. The notion that a flying rat might swoop down and bite you on the neck is a gruesome one, especially when you think of the pathogens you might pick up in the process.

Do bats attack humans?

Bats are shy creatures that will usually avoid contact with humans and only a very small percentage of them harbor the rabies virus.

It is very rare for a bat to bite people, and they will usually only do so if they feel threatened. However, it is not unheard of for bats to attack humans and, in some areas, bat attacks are even on the rise.

Vampire bats, native to Brazil, are the only type of bat (and mammal) known to feed entirely on blood.

Keep in mind!

Despite their grisly, movie-born reputation for sucking people dry, vampire bats feed almost exclusively on the blood of cows and rarely bite humans.

Even so, the number of vampire bat attacks on people is increasing, with dozens being attacked in their beds and possibly exposed to the rabies virus in recent years.

Fortunately, this spate of vampire bat attacks seems to be confined to the northern regions of Brazil (for now) – but why is it happening?

As we mentioned earlier, bats will usually only bite people if they feel threatened, and this could well be the case in northern Brazil.

Deforestation continues to wipe out large swathes of the bats’ natural habitat and urbanized areas encroach on what was once wild space, therefore bats are being forced into closer and closer contact with humans. As a result, bats are biting people with increased frequency in these regions.

What diseases are carried by bats?

Bats are best known for carrying rabies and are thought to account for around 70% of the 89 rabies-related deaths recorded in the US since 1960.

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Rabies may be the most famous bat-related disease, but it’s far from being the only one.

In fact, bats are known to carry more than 60 viruses known to infect humans. Some of these viruses can cause devastating illnesses, including:

  • Ebola
  • Nipah
  • Hendra
  • Marburg

Bats are also known to carry various coronaviruses, though we don’t yet know if they are the source of the SARS-Covid19 virus that led to the current 2020 pandemic.

How can you tell if a bat has rabies?

Of all the diseases carried by bats, rabies is the biggest concern for most people.

Rabies is a very serious disease that, without an immediate vaccination, will become fatal. You can’t tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it, but the following behaviors can be warning signs that it has the virus:

  • Daytime activity
  • Resting in unusual places (like your house or backyard)
  • Inability to fly
  • Willingness to be approached by humans

To be on the safe side, never attempt to handle a bat. If you are bitten by any kind of bat, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical treatment immediately.

Bat myths: busted

Myth: bats will get tangled in my hair

Fact: Many people are afraid of bats getting caught in their hair but, in reality, this would almost certainly never happen. Bats have very keen senses and use echolocation to navigate objects in the dark, and are perfectly capable of avoiding your head.

Serrah Galos/Unsplash.com

Myth: Bats drink blood

Fact: Bats have an unfair reputation as bloodsuckers. Yes; vampire bats exist, and yes; they do drink cow’s blood, but they very rarely bite humans. The vast majority of bat species eat insects and/or fruit.

Myth: Bats are blind

Fact: The phrase ‘blind as a bat’ is actually a little misleading. Bats are not blind at all, and some species (like the fruit bat) actually have very good vision.

The saying may have originated from a poor understanding of how bats navigate at night when they rely more heavily on echolocation than sight to get around.

Conclusion

Bats are known to harbor dozens of infectious diseases (including rabies), but they aren’t especially dangerous to humans. This is because, though bats will occasionally bite people if they feel threatened, they are timid creatures and tend to avoid people. Even if a bat does bite you, your chances of getting sick are minimal as only a very small percentage of bats carry the rabies virus.

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