WATERLOO REGION — A Kitchener rat-breeding operation has shut down after two people connected to the business were infected with Seoul virus, a serious illness transmitted by the rodents.
The two local cases, which investigators believe may be linked to a larger outbreak in the U.S., has health authorities urging anyone with prolonged exposure to rats to visit a doctor for a blood test.
Since the virus can feel like the flu, other people may have been infected and not know it.
“If people have a pet rat, or work in the rat industry and are concerned about their health, they really should be seeking medical attention,” said Brenda Miller, manager of health protection and investigation with the Region of Waterloo Public Health unit.
“We don’t know there are not other cases out there, but we will know if people go to seek medical attention.”
Although rats don’t show symptoms of the disease, people concerned a rat they bought in the past few months is infected are being told to ask their veterinarian if testing is needed. If the rat is infected, it will carry the virus for life.
Seoul virus, spread through rat bites or contact with urine, feces, saliva or contaminated bedding, can’t be treated in humans and in some cases can lead to a serious condition called hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. That can cause low blood pressure, shock and critical kidney failure.
Most people, however, may only develop mild symptoms or none at all. Typical symptoms of the virus include fever, headaches, back and abdominal pain, chills, blurred vision, redness of the eyes and rashes.
So far, there are three confirmed human cases of the virus in Ontario. Of the two infected locally, one person went to a doctor after feeling ill, and the other showed no signs but was tested because of their exposure.
Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, meanwhile, is investigating the source of the illnesses, and looking at any possible connections to an outbreak of 16 human cases in the U.S.
Public health officials believe the health risk to Ontarians is low, because Seoul virus is not spread from person to person, but rather directly from exposure to rats.
The affected business, Pixie’s Pocket Pets of Kitchener, has suspended its breeding operation and stopped selling the rodents until further testing can be completed. Owner Carol Gamble posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that she was waiting for the outbreak to pass.
“This means I will not be pairing anymore rats for the time being, no new rats will be coming in and no rats will be going out,” she wrote.
Gamble, whose business was not revealed by public health officials, couldn’t be reached for this story. The business’s Facebook page has since been taken down.
News of the larger Seoul virus outbreak has rippled through the rat breeding industry.
“It’s very serious … it spreads like wildfire. If one were to catch it, it would wipe out our entire colony,” said Chantal Warner, owner of Rattastic Ratteries in Kitchener.
“They’d all have to be euthanized. That would kill our business.”
Warner, who’s been selling pet rats since 2009, says since learning of the virus she’s refusing to buy any new rats, has tested all her animals, and only sells to homes that can prove they’re virus-free. She’s even installed a foot wash station for her volunteers.
She adds anyone who wants to buy a pet rat should make sure it’s coming from a reputable breeder whose animals have a proven lineage and have been cleared by a veterinarian.
“All my rats, before they go to a home, they’re vetted and have proof they’re Seoul virus-free,” Warner said. “We’re going to huge lengths because none of us want to see that happen.”
People with pet rats should also be able to ask the breeder they bought it from if their stock is part of the population being investigated, Miller said.
Health officials are reminding rat owners to exercise caution in handling the animals. Rats’ cages and bedding should be disinfected, and hands should be washed immediately after touching them.
If a rat tests positive for Seoul virus, it should be destroyed.
“Most people will go that option, because there is no vaccine to prevent it from contaminating the rest of their stock,” Miller said. “But that’s typically done on a volunteer basis.”
Young children, pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems and the elderly are especially vulnerable to infection, she added.