Flying foxes also known as fruit bats are the saviour of forests due to their quick digestion and seed spreading. Flying foxes have evolved quick digestion to allow them to stay light for flying. This means the time between ingestion and excretion is as short as 12 minutes.
What this means to forests is that flying foxes on the edge of a cleared area are quite often spitting and pooping fertilised seeds as they leave their food trees.
Flying foxes are also a key players in pollinating our hardwood eucalyptus forests. They visit trees and spread the pollen and seeds over several kilometers from the source which helps spread genetic material to keep our forests and ecosystem healthy.
Drought, fires and loss of habitat
Like many animals, the flying fox is suffering because of the drought, fires and loss of habitat and they are dying of starvation and dehydration.
Flying fox ecologists say that unusually dry conditions have affected flowering and fruiting of their usual feed trees primarily eucalypt blossom and unless significant rain is received in the near future, further food shortages are likely to occur.
This means that bats are currently being found in places where they are usually not, and North Coast Local Land Services are warning pet and stock owners to avoid handling or touching injured or dead flying foxes as wildlife carer groups are reporting a significant number of flying foxes affected by starvation on the NSW north coast.
Australian Bat Lyssavirus
Bats in Australia are also the natural reservoir for Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV), and research indicates a small percentage of flying foxes carry Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV).
Phil Kemsley, North Coast Local Land Services District Veterinarian said Lyssaviruses, including ABLV, are usually transmitted via bites or scratches and is known to affect bats, humans and horses.
Sick or injured bats are often found on the ground or low down on trees, making them easy for curious animal to catch. It is common for domestic animals, particularly dogs and cats, to come in direct contact with bats.
Lyssavirus and domestic pets
‘Although there have been no recorded cases of ABLV infection in dogs or cats in Australia, it is possible that domestic pets are susceptible to the disease,’ said Dr Kemsley.
‘If you find a sick, injured or abandoned flying-fox, contact a licensed wildlife carer organisation or local veterinarian. Members of the public should not handle live bats. Only trained, vaccinated bat handlers should attempt to handle bats.’
Dr Kemsley recommends that if you know or suspect your pet has been in contact with a bat, clean any apparent wounds by washing under running water for five minutes and apply an iodine-based antiseptic.
‘After cleaning any wounds, seek veterinary assistance from your local veterinary practitioner without delay for the safety of pets and owners,’ said Dr Kemsly.
‘Your veterinarian may send the bat to a government laboratory for testing. Post-exposure vaccination is available for pets.’
What about human exposure?
Any human exposure to a bat should be reported immediately to NSW Health.
Solé Fálcon from the Northern Rivers Wildlife Carers says that because they are starving to death people will notice flying foxes on fruit trees and ‘guarding’ fruit due to lack of food. ‘Many are literally dying on trees or are on the ground,’ she said.
‘If we lose our flying foxes the ecosystem will also suffer and collapse. Many of our beloved Australian native animals depend on each others role for survival.
‘If you find a bat please call any of the two wildlife groups. Do not attempt to remove them from barb wire or netting. Only an experienced and vaccinated flying fox handler can do so.’
Local wildlife carers can help
Local wildlife carers want to encourage people to report any flying foxes they see stuck on barb wire due to barb wire, stuck in fruit netting, hit by cars or attacked by dogs or cats
Call the Northern Rivers Wildlife Carers on 6628 1866 or WIRES 6628 1898 and they will advise you what to do next.
For more information on ABLV or managing bat interactions, visit the NSW Department of Primary Industries website https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/biosecurity/animal/humans/bat-health-risks.
To notify that your pet may have had contact with a bat, please call North Coast Local Land Services on 1300 795 299 or after hours on the Emergency Animal Disease Hotline on 1800 675 888.