If the thought of vampire bats sucking your blood for their meals isn't enough to scare you, new research shows they also carry dangerous bacteria that can cause a potentially deadly infection of the heart's inner lining and valves.
Researchers at Montana State University said they found Bartonella infection is common among these bats, posing a health risk to people and domestic animals.
Vampire bats subsist on a diet of blood. These bats, which are common in Latin America, can spread Bartonella bacteria to people and livestock, the researchers explained.
During a two-year period, the investigators collected blood, saliva and fecal samples from vampire bats across Belize and Peru, to assess the prevalence of Bartonella infection. The bats that tested positive for the bacteria underwent additional genetic testing, to help the researchers determine how the bacteria is spread.
The study, led by Daniel Becker at Montana State, found that 67 percent of the bats tested carried Bartonella bacteria. Large males had the highest risk of being infected. The researchers also found that Bartonella genotypes are distributed widely across Central and South America -- and not clustered geographically.
Bartonella is often spread through bites, but the bats' saliva and fecal samples were also positive for the infection, suggesting the bacteria can spread through environmental contamination.
The findings were published Sept. 27 in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
But the researchers noted that more studies are needed to explore how Bartonella spreads from bats to people.
"Given the high rates of vampire bat bites and proximity to humans and domestic animals, such efforts to verify the possibility and frequency of oral and environmental exposures" would help scientists nail down how common transmission of Bartonella between species is, the study authors said in a journal news release.