When Lisa Graves stepped on a dead bat in her Hebron home this summer, she didn’t think much about it.

Her two cats had been playing with the bat overnight, and Graves, not quite awake, tread on it when she came downstairs the next morning. She put the bat in the trash and went about her business.

Later, the family started thinking: Rabies.

“We thought, ‘Maybe we should call the vet,'” Graves said.

The vet said they had a right to be concerned.

Conventional wisdom has been “See a bat in the house, get rid of it. No problem.” But the National Centers for Disease Control tightened its recommendations several years ago after a young child was bitten by a rabid bat in Washington state, and her family didn’t realize it. The girl later died of rabies, a disease that attacks the nervous system. The CDC now says people should seek medical advice when they come in contact with a bat, even if it doesn’t look like it has bitten anyone.

Graves’ bat was sent for testing. For a day, she didn’t know whether she’d been exposed to rabies or not.

“I was nervous,” she said. “Especially since I have a 9-year-old.”

To Graves’ relief, the bat had no diseases. Her cats, which had already gotten rabies booster shots, would be fine. She didn’t have to decide whether to go through a series of rabies shots herself.

It was a short, nerve-wracking time for Graves. For other Mainers, the anxiety is just beginning.

It’s peak bat season in Maine.

‘A Maine tradition’

Maine is home to thousands of bats, particularly in central and western Maine. Little brown and big brown bats are among the most common, though all the bats found in Maine eat insects and are an important part of the state’s ecology, experts say.

“They’re wonderful animals. They should be respected for all they do,” said Dr. Dora Mills, head of the Maine CDC, who learned about bats when they began roosting at her camp in Readfield.

Since they’re shy, bats typically avoid people and don’t bite unless sick, injured or scared. They generally sleep unobtrusively in attics and other warm, dark places, but if there’s a small hole in a window screen, if there’s an open chimney or another way in, they can wander into a home’s living space.

July and August are the peak months in Maine for finding bats in homes. Young bats have matured just enough to fly but are still young enough to get lost. Older bats are out looking for food and mistakenly fly into houses.

“If you get a bat in a house once a year, that’s what you call a Maine tradition,” said Bill Elliott, owner of the Rangeley-based Maine Bat Control. He gets more than 300 calls a year about bat removal.

Graves believes her bat flew in when her family propped open the door to bring in groceries one night. At Mills’ summer camp, colonies of bats fly around the lake at night and at least one wanders inside the cabin every year.

Like many Mainers, Mills usually just catches the stray bat and puts it outside. But the national CDC recommends that a bat be tested for rabies if it’s found in a room with an unattended child, a mentally impaired person or someone who’s asleep. People usually know when they’ve been bitten, but bats’ teeth are so small that they may not leave marks or awaken a sleeping person.

Mills was asleep at her camp one night when she felt something on her leg. Groggy, she thought it was her cat.

But when Mills fully woke up, she realized her cat wasn’t there.

“I shook the sheets, and a bat flew out,” she said.

Believing the bat bit her, Mills sent it to the state lab for testing.

Deadly disease

Maine tests hundreds of animals for rabies every year, analyzing brain tissue for the virus. Last year, 61 were positive. So far this year, 58 have been positive, six of them bats.

Like most bats, Mills’ was negative for rabies. Bat Conservation International, a Texas-based group, says only one half of 1 percent of bats have rabies. But people have more contact with rabid bats because sick bats are more likely to approach humans and to allow humans to approach them.

Rabies is usually transmitted through bites. The CDC says it’s possible, though rare, for people to get rabies if saliva from a rabid animal gets directly into their eyes, nose, mouth or open wound.

If a bat is found in a house and it hasn’t touched anyone, experts say it can be released outside without worry. If a pet or person come in contact with a bat, experts recommend that it be sent for testing.

When there’s contact but testing isn’t possible – usually because the animal has gotten away – the CDC says people should contact medical professionals. Depending on the contact, doctors may recommend rabies boosters for the pet and a series of five rabies shots for the person.

Because reporting isn’t required, it’s unclear how many Mainers get the $1,500 series of shots every year.

No Mainer has died from rabies since 1934, when a New Sharon farmer was bitten by a rabid dog. That makes some people question the necessity of expensive shots for such a rare disease.

But Mills likes the CDC’s conservative recommendations. She points to a case earlier this year in which a Texas teenager died of rabies weeks after he woke from a nap and found a bat in his bedroom. Apparently unaware that he’d been bitten, the teenager never got the rabies shots that could have saved his life.

Only one unvaccinated person in the world has ever been known to survive rabies.

“That’s the thing about rabies; you never want to take the chance,” Mills said.

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