Rat-Bite Fever and Pet Rats: How Concerned Should We Be?

April 16, 2014
Photo: freeinfosociety.com

Photo: freeinfosociety.com

The recent report of a 10-year-old boy that died from rat-bite fever in San Diego has raised concerns about the risk of contracting this disease from pet rats. The family of the child is suing Petco, where they bought a pet rat two weeks before the boy died after a 48-hour illness characterized by flu-like symptoms. This incident has brought into discussion the rare but real risk of this zoonotic disease, which is caused by two different bacteria that are carried by rats. The type of rat-bite fever that is most common in North America is caused by Streptobacillus moniliformis. Another form of rat-bite fever is caused by Spirillum minus and occurs primarily in Asia. Rats can carry both bacteria as part of the normal flora of their respiratory tract. Because of this, rats do not usually exhibit any outward signs of illness from these bacteria. People are infected with the bacteria through rat bites or exposure to urine, feces or saliva of rats that carry the organism.

Illness after the bite of a rat has been described for thousands of years in Asia in poor populations that are exposed to wild rats. With the increased use of large numbers of laboratory rats in the last century, this disease has been seen most often in laboratory animal workers in the US, as well as in poor populations. However, the growth of the pet industry and the increased popularity of fancy pet rats in the last 30 years have shifted the disease incidence so that now more than 50% of the cases in the United States are seen in children. Rat-bite fever is not a reportable disease in the US, so the actual number of cases that occur annually is unknown. However, the incidence of the disease in the US is very low, and death from rat-bite fever is also rare. The cases that are known are those that are documented in the medical literature. To complicate matters, the clinical signs of rat-bite fever in people are nonspecific, and the tests to isolate or identify the organisms involved are not routine. Often, a history of exposure to a rat, in combination with the clinical signs, is the clue that doctors use to suspect rat-bite fever in patients, and then diagnosis is based on specific testing methods. If the disease is suspected or diagnosed, treatment with antibiotics is curative in most cases. A good review of this disease is available – see Rat Bite Fever and Streptobacillus moniliformis.

So what is the risk of this disease if you or your children have a pet rat? Fancy rats are very popular as easy to maintain, social and gentle pets. They are common children’s pets but also have an avid following among adults who can’t afford or don’t have the lifestyle suitable for a dog or cat. Fancy rats are widely available from both pet stores and private breeders in different colors, sizes and conformations. However, few, if any of the pet rats sold are tested for the bacteria that cause rat-bite fever. The prevalence of the bacteria in rats can vary, from as few as 10% to as many as 100% of rats in a breeding colony or laboratory that are infected. Any pet rat can carry these organisms, but the risk of actually contracting the disease from the rat is very low.

What should you do? As with any animal that carries a risk of zoonotic disease, hand-washing after handling is of utmost importance. Using either soap-and-water or an alcohol-based hand cleanser after handling the pet rat and cleaning the cage is mandatory. Children should be instructed to always wash their hands after playing with the pet and to always tell parents about any bites that occur when handling the pet. Owners of pet rats should immediately report unexplained fevers, illness or rashes to their healthcare provider. Specialized screening tests to see if your pet rat is a carrier of S. moniliformis are available from veterinarians, but make sure you call ahead to see which veterinarians provide this test, as it is not routinely offered.

This blog was written by:
Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian)
Head, Avian and Exotic Pet Service

The Animal Medical Center


Pet Food Pantries

July 28, 2011

Last Sunday, I was at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City attending a discussion of its Crossroads Community Services Program which supports breakfast for 150-200 New Yorkers three days a week, an overnight shelter and a food pantry. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked the program director, “Where is there a pet food pantry?” and I will admit I wasn’t sure. But given the high unemployment data out last week and the dismal job reports in the news, I knew there were still families in need. Since pets are family, I decided to investigate pet food pantries.

In New York City, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals is a coalition of non-profit shelters and rescue groups saving the lives of adoptable pets in New York City. Their website lists three groups helping to provide needy New York City pets with food and supplies: Animal Relief Fund, Prince Chunk Foundation and the Food Bank for New York City.

The Food Bank for New York City is heavily involved in providing meals for hungry pets and has presence in all five boroughs. It is just one beneficiary of the PETCO Foundation’s “We Are Family” program. PETCO collects the food and cat litter and their partners use their human food pantries as the distribution site.

This website gives a state by state list of the PETCO stores collecting food and cat litter for pets in need and their food pantry partners. In Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, We Are Family works in partnership with Long Island Cares. The Food Bank for New York City’s West Harlem location has recently received a large donation of pet food from the Iams Company and VCA Charities Pet Program. Registered food pantry members will receive free pet food and some may also receive coupons for pet care from VCA.

Another local New York City organization providing pet food is the Animal Relief Fund (ARF). They are members of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals and collect pet food and distribute it through a large number of local human food pantries in the five boroughs and on Long Island via Long Island Cares.

Not exactly a food pantry, but an important provider of food to those in need is Meals On Wheels. Meals On Wheels provides not only food for the home-bound elderly, but companionship as well. Some local Meals On Wheels organizations have a pet feeding program in addition to their senior citizen feeding program. We All Love Our Pets (WALOP) delivers nutritional pet meals along with nutritious human meals. By helping an elderly person feed his/her pet, the senior citizen and their pet can maintain the human companion animal bond critical to the senior’s emotional and physical health.

So how can animal lovers help pets in need?

  1. Donate money to your local pet food pantry
  2. Donate pet food or cat litter to an organization that partners with a human food pantry for distribution.
  3. Volunteer for an organization providing meals to the whole family.
  4. Start a pet food pantry.

These are only a few ideas. I am sure you readers have many others. Tell us some ideas you may have to help the needy feed their pets.

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This may also be found in the “Tales from the Pet Clinic” blog on WebMD.com.

For over a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center, 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit www.amcny.org. To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.


Winter Pet Hazards

December 21, 2010

The Arctic Express is moving through New York and the rest of the country in a little pre-holiday blitz. As a result of the low temperatures and last night’s freezing rain, this morning there was salt on all the sidewalks on my route to The Animal Medical Center reminding me it is time to talk about winter hazards for pets.

Salt and Ice Melt

Real salt (NaCl), or a calcium chloride salt substitute used in some ice melts, both contain chloride which is irritating to dog paws and stomachs if they lick the salt off their feet. Calcium chloride can generate enough heat to burn the skin on delicate paws. Several companies make a pet safe (salt and chloride free) ice melt. They are typically brightly colored pellets so dog owners can easily see where the salt has been spread. Morton’s is making an eco-safe/pet safe ice melt with plant fertilizer in it. PETCO also offers a non-tracking, pet safe ice melt

If you and your dog go on long walks and might encounter a non-pet friendly ice melt, you will need to wash your pet’s feet after the walk. You might also consider musher’s wax applied to the footpad or putting boots on your pet before a walk. Sled dog owners apply musher’s wax to the pads of their dog’s feet to provide a protective coating against ice and cold. Personally, I think the boots, which are like little balloons for dog feet, are really cute and the dogs I see wearing them don’t seem to mind. Here are some fun dog boots for the fashion conscious.

Frigid Temperatures

Dogs living outdoors in their own doghouse, a kennel or barn not only need a warm, snug place to sleep with some sort of bedding to keep them up off the cold ground, they also need food and water. When cold weather hits, your outdoor dog can get very hungry and thirsty if their food is outside and frozen. Check your outdoor dog’s food and water frequently to be sure it is edible and drinkable. If the water is frozen, get a dog water bowl heater or consider bringing your dog inside until the weather tempers a bit.

Stray Voltage

Every year there are frightening stories of dogs and their owners who are “shocked” by stray voltage on wet streets. The combination of salt, water and stray voltage from poorly insulated wiring on light posts or street and sidewalk electric boxes can be dangerous. Never tie your dog to a lamppost. To be safe, walk your dog a good distance away from these potential hazards and report any possible sources of stray voltage to the police or electric company. If your dog is the unfortunate victim of stray voltage (they usually cry in pain or collapse while walking near a light post or electric box on a wet or slushy day), it is important to get them to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. Street Zaps has other helpful information about protecting your entire family against stray voltage.

This blog may also be found in the “Tales from the Pet Clinic” blog from WebMD.

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For nearly a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center, 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit www.amcny.org. To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.


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