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More than 1,300 species of bats roam the planet playing ecological roles that are vital to natural ecosystems and human economies – from pollinating plants and keeping insect populations in check, to making valuable fertilizer (guano) and dispersing seeds. Without them, Earth would be a very different place. But bats also can harbor diseases, including rabies.

Now, a researcher with funding from Morris Animal Foundation is investigating a new way to vaccinate bats against rabies. The possibility of protecting bats – and people and other animals in the process – from rabies outbreaks is tantalizing. The novel vaccine approach also may have applications beyond rabies, particularly in developing a vaccine against white-nose syndrome, a disease that is decimating bat colonies around the country.

Dr. Ben Stading, a veterinarian, public health specialist and PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is investigating the use of topical delivery of vaccines in a gel or paste that bats will ingest when grooming themselves. To be successful, the material used to apply the vaccines has to stick well to bat fur, be palatable to bats, and be able to maintain vaccine viability over time when used in the field.

“We have assessed a few different materials that were provided by our collaborators,” said Dr. Stading, who received a Fellowship Training Grant from Morris Animal Foundation to conduct his studies. His mentor is Dr. Jorge Osorio, University of Wisconsin—Madison. “We plan now to test the delivery of vaccine using the best-performing options from our previous studies.”

A topical rabies vaccine would directly benefit species like free-tailed bats, which roost in large colonies making group vaccine easier. It also would have applicability to vampire bats, which also tend to have rabies circulating among populations. This is a significant problem in Central and South America where bat populations are regularly culled by topical delivery of an anticoagulant poison. The vaccine would be administered by “bat workers” who would apply the gel or paste while the bats are roosting.

“In the short-term, we hope to develop a topical rabies vaccine that can be used to decrease the prevalence of rabies in targeted bat populations,” said Dr. Stading. “In the long-term, this vaccine could diminish the rabies cycle in various bat populations, providing health benefits to them and protecting humans and other animals from disease spillover.”

Dr. Stading said effective control of rabies in bat populations would have the added benefit of reducing the stigma against bats that rabies has caused during the last century. The technology developed also could be adapted to protect bats against other diseases, such as Ebola and SARS-like coronaviruses, which affect them and other species coming into contact with bats.

About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation is a nonprofit organization that invests in science to advance animal health. The foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies for companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, Morris Animal Foundation has invested more than $100 million toward 2,400 studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments, preventions and cures to benefit animals worldwide. Learn more at