There are 18 species of bats known to reside in the United Kingdom, 17 of which breed there. All UK bats are insectivorous and on the small end of the bat scale globally, with some fruit bats in Asia recorded as having a wingspan of over 1.5 metres and weighing up to 1.5 kilograms. The most widespread UK bat, the common pipistrelle, weighs only 5 grams on average, and the biggest UK bat, the noctule, can weigh 18 to 40 grams but is still smaller than the palm of a human hand when its wings are folded.
Populations of UK bat species have decreased significantly during the last century. Although legal protections and conservation efforts have seen some species slowly increase in number, they still face many pressures. With an ever-increasing human population and continued land development, bat populations remain under threat due to factors such as destruction of or damage to roost sites, disturbance, artificial lighting and disruption of commuting routes, as well as more direct threats to individual bats such as wind turbines, cats and sticky fly papers.
With increasingly close cohabitation between bats and humans, veterinary practices are ever more likely to get calls from members of the public or organisations asking them to give advice about bats, or to examine or treat them. This article and the accompanying video presentation aim to give vets and veterinary workers a basic understanding of the bat life cycle and give them the confidence to deal with basic bat handling, first aid and, most importantly, where to go for help and advice when it comes to dealing with bats.
The life cycle of bats
Although the life cycle varies between species, some bats can live for up to 30 years or more. Native bats hibernate over winter and generally start to come out of their winter roosts in March as the weather gets warmer. They may, however, go into a state of torpor again during colder snaps in March and April.
In May, female bats start to form maternity colonies and search for suitable sites to raise their young, with some bats returning to the same site every year. UK bats will use existing structures such as trees, caves and buildings as roosts rather than building their own. June is usually the time of year when adult female bats will give birth to their young (although there is variation across species). This will be a single pup (or twins on rare occasions) which they will then feed on milk until weaning. Bats are very sensitive to interference at this time and may abandon their pups if disturbed. Mothers will go out foraging at night and continue to suckle their pups into August when they leave their maternity roosts. The summer is a time when pups may be found on the ground as they learn to fly.
September and October are usually spent building up fat reserves for winter hibernation and mating. During October and November bats start to enter increasingly long periods of torpor during colder periods, and by December most have gone into hibernation, either alone or in small groups.
Bats and the law
All bats and their roosts in the UK are protected by law (Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981): it is an offence to damage or destroy roosts, or to disturb, injure or kill bats. It is also an offence to willfully impede their access to their roosts (The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, 2017). Bats can only be taken from the wild if there is no other alternative and they must be re-released. A licence is required to be able to keep a bat in captivity for long-term situations. Licences are not required to treat or euthanise a bat if it is in the interests of bat welfare.
All bats and their roosts in the UK are protected by law: it is an offence to damage or destroy roosts, or to disturb, injure or kill bats
Often, vets are concerned about the risk of contracting rabies from any bat they may treat. It is true that bats in the UK can carry a form of “bat rabies” – lyssaviruses that can cause symptoms clinically indistinguishable from classic rabies in humans. These are not the classic rabies virus, which is responsible for the majority of rabies cases globally but has only been found in bats in the Americas. Of the 18 lyssaviruses that have been identified, two have been detected in bats in the UK: these are European bat lyssavirus 1 (EBLV1) and European bat lyssavirus 2 (EBLV2). The Animal and Plant Health Agency runs a passive surveillance scheme for lyssaviruses in the UK and has tested more than 15,000 dead bats since 1986. During this time, only 35 bats have been identified as infected with a bat lyssavirus (DEFRA and APHA, 2022).
EBLV are transmitted by the bite (nip, scratch or lick) of an infectious bat, or by its saliva entering a wound or mucous membrane. There has only been one documented case of a human contracting rabies following contact with an infected bat in the UK; this was in 2002 when an unvaccinated bat worker was taken ill with the disease (Racey et al., 2012). This sad death, and the background of three further confirmed cases of bat-acquired human rabies in Europe over the last 30 years, indicates that the risk of any bat brought into the practice carrying this virus and then transmitting it to veterinary personnel is very low but present.
Current guidance from public health authorities is that vets only need to be vaccinated against rabies if they are handling bats on a regular basis
Therefore, bats should only be handled if necessary, and if contact is required they should be handled with care (see accompanying presentation). However, this small risk should not put veterinary staff off dealing with bats presented to them. While people regularly working directly with bats for welfare or conservation reasons should be vaccinated against rabies, current guidance from public health authorities is that vets only need to be vaccinated against rabies if they are handling bats on a regular basis.
|What to do if you are bitten by a bat|
Bats infected with EBLV may not show any signs of infection so anyone bitten (bites are often felt, but leave no visible indication), scratched or whose mucous membranes come into contact with saliva of any bat should seek medical advice from their local health care provider. More details can be found on the government website.
Immediate treatment should include washing the area of any bite or scratch with soap and water, before seeking further advice. Health professionals will be able to assess the exposure risk and arrange post-exposure treatment if necessary (this treatment is highly effective when administered promptly). Even those previously vaccinated against rabies should seek medical advice.
APHA guidance regarding bat rabies, including advice for pet owners who are concerned that their pet has been in contact with a bat, can be found on its website.
What to do if confronted with a bat in practice
If a member of the public reports an ill, injured or grounded bat to you, in the first instance direct them to the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT). Its National Bat Helpline (0345 1300 228) can provide immediate advice during opening hours and its website is also full of useful information. If BCT considers that the bat needs further care, it will direct the caller to a member of the UK Bat Care Network, an independent group of bat care volunteers, to assess the bat further and rehabilitate if necessary. In some circumstances, however, the BCT helpline will advise the finder to contact a veterinary surgeon, or people will just pick up a bat and bring it to the practice before they have consulted anyone. BCT is happy to advise veterinary teams in these situations, and has veterinary practice specific information on its website.
Vets do not need to be a specialist to give emergency treatment to a bat, and… they have a duty of care to it, just like any other animal in need
Common reasons for the presentation of a bat to a vet include injuries due to cat attacks, grounded bats and abandoned pups. Vets do not need to be a specialist to give emergency treatment to a bat, and, according to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Code of Conduct, they have a duty of care to it, just like any other animal in need of emergency/immediate treatment. The accompanying presentation gives a basic guide for what to do when presented with a bat in practice. A comprehensive booklet, Bat Care Guidelines, is also available free of charge on the BCT website. Dead bats should be sent to APHA for rabies surveillance and BCT provides packs to make this as easy as possible.
|Bat handling health and safety|
– Only directly handle a bat if it is absolutely necessary
– A “spider” technique using a box and piece of card can be used to transfer bats from one location to another (BCT, 2021)
– When handling bats always wear gloves and cover your nose and mouth – the bigger the bat the thicker the gloves will need to be (normal examination gloves may be enough to protect from a pipistrelle bite, but thicker gloves are recommended)
With due care and attention to health and safety, and with a little bit of research, any veterinary practitioner should be able to deal with a bat submitted to their care. Vets will benefit both by expanding their skill set and by having the satisfaction of the knowledge that they are able to help in the conservation of these fascinating but threatened wild animals.