The confirmation of the first two cases of Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) in horses last year has highlighted the need for greater awareness of the disease in all domestic animals.

Beautiful horses
Public domain image/Dusan Bicanski

A rabies-like virus, ABLV had previously only been detected in bats and humans and until 2013 Australia had been considered free from these types of viruses in domestic and feral animals including horses.

Two veterinarians, who have studied the two cases in-depth, have published a paper in this month’s issue of Australian Veterinary Journal on their findings.

The authors want horses and other domestic animals that present with progressive neurological disease or symptoms reflecting diffuse neurological dysfunction to be tested for ABLV so that appropriate post exposure and treatment assessment can take place. Testing will also provide a greater understanding of the disease’s prevalence in Australia.

According to the paper’s co-authors Dr Ed Annand and Dr Peter Reid, the two cases demonstrate that ABLV can infect domestic animals. “This possibility had previously been acknowledged but never before confirmed,” they said.

“ABLV presents a significant zoonotic risk and, as with other lyssaviruses worldwide, under- diagnosis is likely.

“In the past, people have become infected with the deadly lyssavirus by being scratched or bitten by a flying fox or micro-bat, but the spillover to horses reported in our paper indicates that animals other than bats can pose potential human health threats. Further neurological disease surveillance would be beneficial to increase our understanding and identification of the disease’s zoonotic risk.

Flying fox
Image/Video Screen Shot

“There are two recognised variants of Australian bat lyssavirus which are genetically very similar to the rabies virus and cause a disease clinically indistinguishable from rabies in humans and horses,” they said.

The AVA recommends that vets and wildlife carers in contact with bats should be vaccinated against rabies.

Vets should also practice good personal biosecurity when attending sick horses.

The paper can be viewed online at

According to Queensland Health:

  • Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) is closely related to the rabies virus.
  • The best protection against being exposed to the virus is to avoid handling bats or flying foxes.
  • There is no known risk of contracting ABL from bats flying overhead, contact with bat urine or faeces or from fruit they may have eaten.  Living, playing or walking near bat roosting areas does not pose a risk of exposure to the virus.
  • A bat bite, scratch or mucous membrane exposure to bat saliva is necessary to transmit thevirus. Usually bats do not approach humans, more commonly bat scratches or bites occur if someone is trying to ‘rescue’ an injured, sick or distressed bat.
  • It is recommended that for any person who has been bitten, scratched, or had a mucous membrance exposure to bat saliva that treatment be commenced as soon as possible.Treatment involves a course of vaccinations that are necessary to protect the person against ABL.

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