Healthy Outlook: Bats in the belfry

All about rabies vaccines, how to catch a bat and a word to the wise

Shown at left is Michelle Crowell, a Lawrence accountant who had a run-in with a bat in her home, with her sons Rooney, 11, and Ollie, 9. At right is a stock photo of a bat.

The next time Michelle Crowell hears one of her sons say “Mom, there’s a giant bug flying around my room,” she’ll probably go check it out for herself.

Crowell, an accountant living in Lawrence, assumed what 11-year-old Rooney saw was just a June bug — but a few nights later, she discovered that it was a bat.

Close to $10,000 out-of-pocket later, Crowell has done quite a bit of research, and she’s become her friends’ resident expert on the topic. She knows exactly what to do, what not to do and what risks you and your wallet face if you’re not prepared to handle the little webbed-winged mammals.

“Of course I find things out the hard way,” Crowell joked in a recent phone interview.

Michelle Crowell, a Lawrence accountant who had a run-in with a bat in her home, is shown with her sons Rooney, 11, and Ollie, 9.

Crowell decided to be brave — “I put on a hat … I’m not sure what I thought that would do,” she said — and let the bat fly out the window of the bedroom Rooney shares with brother Ollie, 9.

However, once the bat was long gone, she could not be 100 percent certain neither boy had been bit. Thus, Crowell felt obligated to take them to the hospital for post-exposure rabies prophylaxis.

“The alternative to not getting the shots, of course, is that you wait around and you see if your child has rabies,” she said, noting that at the first sign of the extremely fatal disease, it’s probably too late. “I could not deal with that in my mind and I thought, ‘It’s worth these shots.'”

Option 1: The rabies shots

Crowell took Rooney and Ollie to Lawrence Memorial Hospital for the series of vaccinations, which begins with a shot of human rabies immune globulin. It’s what gives your body the antibodies it needs to protect against the rabies virus, according to the Mayo Clinic.

This is where a substantial portion of the cost comes from. Pat Parker, director of pharmacy at LMH, told me the patient charge for the rabies immune globulin for a woman my size would be roughly $12,500. That cost is for a few reasons — it’s a specialty product, and it has to be stored under very particular conditions.

Pat Parker, director of pharmacy at Lawrence Memorial Hospital

Most doctor’s offices don’t stock the shots because, as they are used so infrequently, there’s a high likelihood they would go out of date before they could be used.

Also, the immune globulin shot has a high risk of severe allergic reaction, which is why most hospitals will only administer it in the emergency room, along with the first rabies vaccine.

Next come the three follow-up rabies vaccinations — Parker said the patient charge for the series of four total is roughly $8,400.

Crowell’s sons received all but one of their follow-up injections in the emergency room also, which she said meant longer wait times and additional facilities fees billed to her insurance, bringing the grand total to nearly $28,000.

They did go out of town and went to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, where the boys were able to get one of the shots in an outpatient facility. Unless you head to a bigger city, though, the emergency room seems to be fairly standard practice.

The less costly option: Catch the bat

Crowell let the bat fly out the window of her house without realizing what she could avoid if she caught it.

If you catch a bat that has been in your living space, it can be taken to a veterinarian to be sent to the Kansas State University Rabies Laboratory for testing. If the bat comes back negative — and, according to a 2011 University of Calgary study, just 1 percent of bats won’t — you can skip the second mortgage to pay for the post-exposure shots.

Little brown bats are the most common in Kansas, according to Shane Starkey, inspector for Critter Control of Kaw Valley and certified wildlife specialist.

Shane Starkey, inspector for Critter Control of Kaw Valley and certified wildlife specialist, recommended putting on protective gloves and clothing before attempting to catch a bat. He suggested using a net or a blanket, or perhaps trapping it in a shoebox with air holes made with a ballpoint pen, and taping the lid shut to ensure it stays put.

Another option is a sticky trap for rodents — don’t swat it, Starkey said, but if you tap a bat with a trap, it will immediately spread its wings and stick itself to the trap.

The tricky thing about bats, Starkey said, and what makes it so difficult to protect your home from them, is that despite the average 10-inch wingspan of little brown bats — the most common in Kansas — their bodies are made almost entirely of cartilage, so they can fit into a hole about the size of a dime. (Hence, tiny air holes.)

Though several veterinarians around town didn’t get back to me by press time, it sounds as though there are plenty of options for where to take caught bats.

Dr. Matthew Coles, a veterinarian at Animal Hospital of Lawrence at 701 Michigan St., said via email that his office has handled three bats in the past month.

Dana Mentzer, practice manager for Wakarusa Veterinary Hospital, 1825 Wakarusa Drive, said via email that any veterinary office can handle bat testing, but bats getting into people’s homes is one reason why her office encourages even indoor cats to get rabies vaccinations.

According to its website, KSU charges $47.50 for the sample testing; samples also must be overnighted. It’s worth doing some price shopping before you decide where to go.

Another note: Sadly, rabies testing requires brain tissue, so if you can be 100 percent certain a bat has not made contact with a person — it hasn’t been in the room with someone asleep or unable to answer whether there has been contact — testing is an unnecessary death sentence.

Beware the guano

This stock photo shows bat guano, which is another dangerous byproduct of a bat infestation in your home. Bats eat about half their weight in mosquitoes every day, which is good for the environment, but their quick metabolisms mean they also produce a lot of waste, according to Shane Starkey, inspector for Critter Control of Kaw Valley and certified wildlife specialist.

Bats are a protected species, Starkey said, because they do so much good to control the mosquito population. That means exterminators can’t do anything to intentionally kill colonies of bats.

If a bat is in your living area and you’re uncomfortable catching it yourself, an exterminator can help. However, if a bat or colony is in your attic, Starkey said a “bat exclusion” would involve sealing all but one or two entry points and installing “bat valves” on those, which will allow the bats to leave but not enter. But that is limited, too: in June, July and August, the colonies can’t be disturbed.

Just beware the guano — aka bat excrement. Although it’s a helpful indicator when Starkey is inspecting a house for “critters,” he described it as “the scariest thing that I deal with personally. That guano, over time, will mold, and you can get severe respiratory diseases from the guano itself.”

A severe enough guano problem could require removal of all insulation from an infested area, sterilization and reinstallation of new insulation. That and batbugs, which are similar to bedbugs in their size, nature and resilience, are far more likely health concerns than rabies, Starkey said.

“If people are educated about the good (bats) do, and whatnot, and try not to fear them, then that’s the important thing, is that people understand they’re great for the environment,” Starkey said.