Mention the word flying foxes, or fruit bats, and many people immediately picture a foul smelling, raucous, disease riddled critter that poses a threat to them, their kids and their pets. But, nothing can be further from the truth. Okay, maybe the foul smelling bit is true, but hey, that’s not their fault. The fact is flying foxes are a keystone species that play a vital role in natural ecosystems by pollinating native flowering plants and dispersing seeds from natural forest trees. As many species of flying foxes are endangered, they are also protected and it is illegal to kill or even disturb them.

While bats can carry potentially fatal diseases, these are rare and can be avoided by simply not touching them. It is important that you do not handle any live, injured or dead bats, as potentially harmful viruses are transferred in their bodily fluids (saliva, blood) and infection can be passed on when we are exposed to these fluids. For this reason, even if you are the world’s most dedicated animal lover, you should never try and rescue a bat that is sick or injured, nor should you pick up a dead bat. Rather report it to your local wildlife rescue service or the RSPCA, so that they can send someone who has the necessary training, experience and equipment for handling injured wildlife, and is more likely to be vaccinated against diseases these animals may carry.

As a vet, I often get panicked owners calling, worried that their dog has contracted rabies from bats, but this is very unlikely as the true rabies virus, which is endemic to Africa and Asia, is not found at all in Australia. In Australia, flying foxes carry two diseases that can infect humans and pets: Hendra virus and Bat Lyssavirus, but the number of reported cases is very low.

Hendra virus (HeV

Only a small number of horses and two cases of dogs being infected with Hendra virus (HeV) have been reported in Australia, and neither of the dogs became clinically ill from the virus. It is believed that the affected dogs contracted the disease after coming into close contact with horses that were infected with the disease rather than becoming infected directly from flying foxes. If you have horses and suspect they may have become infected you should report this immediately to the State Vet. It is not necessary to test your dog for HeV unless advised to do so by state officials.

Australian Bat Lyssavirus 

Bat Lyssavirus is related to the rabies virus and can lead to severe neurological symptoms. While the virus has been detected in Australian bats, potentially putting dogs at risk, no dogs have fallen ill as a result of contracting lyssavirus disease. As the virus is transmitted via the saliva, a dog can become infected if bitten by an infected bat. To keep your pet safe, it is advisable to keep them indoors at night, especially if you have fruit trees or flowering trees in your garden that may attract flying foxes. It’s also a good idea to keep your dogs under leash control when taking them out for a walk if you are going to pass near a bat colony to prevent them chasing a bat and potentially getting bitten.

Should your dog get bitten by a flying fox, or if you suspect that it may have been, seek professional advice from your vet, who can advise you on the necessary precautions to take to protect your pet from these diseases.

The reality is that flying foxes are not pests, but rather a precious and largely misunderstood Australian species. Not only are they are intelligent and remarkable, but these unique animals also help regenerate our forests and keep ecosystems healthy through pollination and seed dispersal. Rather than condemn them, we should appreciate the vitally important ecological services they provide. They are our flying foresters, and without them, our Australian forest cannot thrive.

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