Rat bite fever case bacteria present in most rats

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Mar 2, 2014 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

News last week that a local 10-year-old boy died from a rare bacterial infection called Rat Bite Fever cast a popular family pet in a new light.

While some parents might see the death as reason to banish pet rats from their homes, public health officials say what’s really needed is more awareness of the risks inherent in pet ownership.

Dr. Eric McDonald, deputy public health officer for San Diego County, said all pets naturally harbor bacteria that can be harmful to humans.

“If you’re considering any pet, I think you need to know what the risks are,” McDonald said.

A lawsuit Monday against Petco underlined those risks where rats are concerned. The suit accuses the petstore chain of selling a “defective and dangerous” rat to 10-year-old Aidan Pankey in May 2013.

Less than one month later, the lawsuit states, the boy awoke in severe pain accompanied by fever and stomach problems. He died at 1:09 a.m. June 12, and an autopsy report found his death was caused by a streptobacillus moniliformis infection. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s the name of one of two bacteria known to cause Rat Bite Fever.

According the CDC, it is not necessary to actually be bitten or scratched by a rat in order to become infected. Simply handling rodents with the bacteria is enough and that appears to be what happened in Aidan’s case, according to the family’s attorney, Hamilton Arendsen.

The CDC also noted that “rats are considered the natural reservoir” and that the bacteria can also be found “in other rodent species such as mice and gerbils.”

That means that most rodents carry the bacteria, said county veterinarian Nikos Gurfield.

“A large percentage of rats have this bacteria and they’re asymptomatic. That means they don’t show any clinical signs of being infected,” Gurfield said.

It’s a fact that Petco does not dispute. In a statement Wednesday, the company expressed sadness for the Pankey family’s loss but noted that there is a “high prevalence of asymptomatic infection among rats” and that “testing and treatment of rats is not practical.”

Petco’s statement says it provides anyone who buys a pet, including a rat, care instructions, safe-handling guidelines and a list of potential health risks and requires that “all pet parents must review and sign this document before taking home their new pet.”

Arendsen said the boy’s grandmother did sign the form at the Petco store where the rat was purchased. But he said that the process was perfunctory.

“She signed it, but they never told her to look at the back of the form, which is where the warning information is listed,” Arendsen said. “Not only are the warnings in very small print, they apply to many different animals and they don’t even mention death.”

The attorney said that the fact that most rats carry rat bite fever bacteria does not absolve Petco from responsibility for Aidan’s death.

“Petco, who is in the business of selling rats, needs to be able to do it safely, and they didn’t in this case,” Arendsen said.

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