The good news: Only one or two people die from rabid bat bites in the United States each year. But it does happen. I live in a suburb close to New York City and have had two bats in my house. The first one was rabid.

We came home one day a few years ago to find a bat perched next to the window in our master bedroom. We called animal control and asked if the bat could be released in a nearby reservation. The animal control officer told us that the bat needed to be tested for rabies, and that eight bats had recently been found in homes in the area.

Rabies is found in the brain of an animal, so testing it for rabies requires killing it. I like bats. Any animal that eats its weight in mosquitoes is good. I felt bad about having the bat destroyed and was sure that we weren’t bitten. The animal control officer explained that a bat’s teeth are razor sharp, and that it’s very possible to be bitten without knowing it.

“It’s like when you cut yourself with a sharp knife,” says Dick Ash, animal control officer in South Orange, New Jersey. “You don’t feel it. If the knife is dull, it would hurt immediately. A bat’s teeth are like a sharp knife.”

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A few days later, we got a phone call saying that the bat tested positive for rabies. This meant that everyone in my house — me, my husband, our son and even our cat — needed rabies shots. (Fortunately, the cat had already his annual rabies shot and was covered.)

Later that day, the three of us were at the emergency room at our local hospital. My husband and I had to get a tetanus shot. (Our son had had one recently.) Next was the rabies vaccine. My son and I had to get three shots that day. Because my husband’s a big guy, he had to get four. We had to return three more times for additional shots.

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What to do if you see a bat in your home

If you see a bat in your home, call animal control or a public health agency for help. To encourage the bat to leave on its own, The Humane Society of the United States recommends closing interior doors and giving the bat a way to get outside. (Open a window, for instance.) 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers tips for how to catch a bat in your home, suggesting that you don a pair of leather work gloves, approach the bat slowly after it lands (never try to catch a flying bat) and cover it with a cardboard box or empty coffee can. But some animal control experts say you shouldn’t try to catch it at all.

Keeping bats out of your home

We still don’t know how the first bat entered our home. The second bat, which wasn’t rabid, entered through a nickel-sized hole in a screened window courtesy of our cat. Bats, which are active during late spring and throughout the summer, have accordion-like bodies and can squeeze through tiny openings.

The CDC suggests these steps for bat-proofing your home:

  • Examine your home for holes — even tiny ones. Check your attic, basement, window screens and screen doors. Caulk or repair the holes.
  • Make sure all open windows have secure screens with no gaps around the sides.
  • Caulk any openings around doors and make sure doors to the outside are tightly closed.
  • Use chimney caps and draft guards beneath the door to the attic.
  • Fill electrical and plumbing holes with stainless steel wool or caulking.

The bat in our house was a brown bat. These are endangered due to White Nose Syndrome, a disease spreading rapidly throughout the northeast, killing bats in large numbers.

Bats are amazing creatures that do the world good. Since they live in almost every corner of the world (except in places with extreme heat or cold), you'll probably see one at some point. Just hope the bat's not in your house when you do. 

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Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, FamilyCircle.com and other leading publications. She blogs at Pet News and Views.