BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — For Virginia Prieto, a veterinary technician at the Beale Veterinary Treatment Facility, enjoying a quiet day off of work scrolling through social media was nothing out of the ordinary — that was, until she saw a post that caught her attention.
On April 24, Prieto noticed a post in a local community group by a woman looking to purchase goat’s milk to help rehabilitate a baby bat that one of her dogs had recently found in her yard.
As an experienced veterinary technician, Prieto saw the bat in the post along with two small children, and was concerned about the safety and well-being of the family.
“I was instantly worried,” said Prieto. “Rabies is a serious human health concern, and in the state of California you are required to have a permit to rehabilitate wildlife.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease. The virus infects the central nervous system of mammals, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. It can spread to people and pets if they are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal.
The CDC reports that the vast majority of rabies cases in the U.S. occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes.
With this information in mind, Prieto immediately reached out to the family to share her concerns.
“I advised the woman not to feed the bat and to contact Yuba County Animal Care Services or a local wildlife rescue,” said Prieto. “The woman said she had already contacted them, but they did not answer the phone."
Determined to make sure the family and bat were safe, Prieto reached out to a local rescue group. During the conversation, Prieto learned that the baby bat was actually an adult Mexican free-tailed bat.
“They informed me that it was very abnormal to find a bat during the day,” said Prieto. “They said that it was possible that this bat had fallen from its roost, or it was sick or injured."
To make things easier for the woman and her family, Prieto offered to pick up the bat and take it to the rescue. However, the bat went missing shortly before Prieto was supposed to pick it up.
“The family said that their young daughter probably opened the cage and let the bat out,” explained Prieto. “The garage door was left open, and they couldn’t find the bat so they assumed that it flew away. I notified the rescue, and they said that if the bat flew away then most likely everything was okay.”
But something still felt unresolved for Prieto. Remembering the original social media post about how one of the family’s dogs found the bat, she reached back out to the woman to see if her dogs were vaccinated against rabies.
“The woman explained that they were not vaccinated against rabies since they were young puppies, and she hadn’t had the opportunity to get them seen by a veterinarian due to the pandemic,” continued Prieto.
At that point, the conversation between the woman and Prieto ended, since the bat was gone.
When Prieto went back to work on April 27, she still felt concerned and told her supervisor, Dr. Heather Graves, officer in charge of the Beale Veterinary Treatment Facility, about the situation.
As an experienced veterinarian, Graves was immediately concerned.
“Bats are normally going to leave humans alone so if a person can pick a bat up, it's probably sick,” explained Graves.
While rabies is uncommon in the U.S., with less than 5,000 cases reported to the CDC annually, Graves was concerned that the children and young animals could have been bitten or scratched by the sick bat and shown little to no signs of injury.
“Rabies is terrifying, and it is always best to err on the side of caution,” explained Graves. “Because bat teeth are so small, it is possible to have a puncture wound and not even know it. If a dog picks up a bat and is bitten in the mouth, the wound heals so fast that it is almost impossible to locate the bite injury.”
Graves warned that for small children even touching a bat with rabies could be a serious concern.
“Bats groom themselves like cats with their tongues, and the virus is present in their saliva,” said Graves. “Anybody who touches a bat has this opportunity to get rabies virus on their skin. If the skin is intact, washing with soap and water will kill the virus, but with small children, they might rub their eyes or put their fingers in their mouths. It would be very easy to imagine an exposure actually happening.”
From these concerns, Graves immediately called Yuba County Animal Control.
“I called the county Animal Control to find out if they were even aware of the situation; maybe the lady had already reached out, and this situation had already been taken care of,” explained Graves. “Yuba County said ‘no,’ this was the first they had heard of it.”
As Graves explained the situation, Yuba County Animal Control officials became concerned since the native Mexican free-tailed bat colony had several reported cases of rabies within the population.
According to the CDC, bats account for approximately 33 percent of all animal rabies cases. However, when it comes to rabies exposure, time is of the essence. If a person does not receive appropriate medical care after an exposure, human rabies is almost always fatal.
“Animal Control asked us if we could get in touch with the lady,” said Graves. “Virginia reached out to the lady online and we were able to give Animal Control her phone number.”
With the local Animal Control now in the lead, Graves and Prieto went back to work. Later that day, Animal Control called Graves to let the team know what happened.
“Animal Control referred the family to a local emergency clinic for evaluation, and the two unvaccinated dogs were put in quarantine,” said Graves.
Graves and Prieto were relieved to know that the family and pets were going to be okay, but the mystery remained as to whether the bat actually had rabies.
On May 1, Animal Control called the team again to provide one final update.
“They told us that after visiting the doctor, the woman began to take her home apart looking for the bat,” said Graves. “She was probably very alarmed by the information she was given by the doctor. Eventually, she found the body of the bat and called Animal Control. Animal Control tested the bat, and the results came back positive for rabies.”
For Prieto, she felt relieved to know that she had made the right call to reach out and say something.
“I’m just really glad that I trusted my instincts and reached out to the woman,” said Prieto. “This could have ended badly for the family.”
As members of Public Health Activity-San Diego and Public Health Command-Pacific, Prieto and Graves’s dedication to care for the health and well-being of others embraced the PHC-P credo of “100/0!” which means 100 percent accountability and responsibility and zero excuses for not giving your best every day.
“Since this has happened within the local community and the family was not military, we got involved because it was a human health concern,” explained Graves. “While it was a little scary stepping outside our jurisdiction, for something like rabies, it was worth it. You really don’t want to think about anybody having something like rabies happen to their family members.”
While the bat tested positive for rabies, Graves points out that bats are an important part of the ecosystem and should not be eradicated. Instead, people should leave bats alone and call professionals to handle them.
“I don't want people to think every bat is rabid and must be destroyed,” said Graves. “I just want people to avoid handling any bat because it might be rabid. Going out and destroying colonies would be a very bad thing to do for our ecosystem.”
If a bat is found in your home, keep pets and people away from the bat and call your local Animal Control right away. For more information about rabies visit: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html