One morning you awaken with a terrible case of the flu. The next day, your fever spikes and you end up taking over 24 hours just to sleep comfortably. Or maybe one night while camping, you decide not to wear rat poison on your clothes because you’re afraid it will attract raccoons or mice into your tent.

If that’s not bad enough, when you go out to get water, you step right on a dead mouse carcass. A few days later, you develop an infection and soon find yourself hospitalized. Before you know it, you’ve got a $10,000 medical bill and no health insurance.

What happened?

The culprit was probably some form of bacteria or virus carried by rodents like rats, mice, squirrels, or even coyotes. This is called “zoonosis,” which means animal-to-animal transmission. In this instance, the disease-causing pathogen originated in wild rodents and then made its way to people via contact with infected animal waste, food products, or through the bite of an infected insect.

And unfortunately, zoonotic illnesses don’t discriminate between human beings and pets it doesn’t matter if your pet cat has fleas, or if you have a stray dog hanging around your house. And with the recent rise in popularity of urban gardening (and eating) among Americans, there’s little doubt that more cases of rodent-carried infections will occur in coming years.

But how likely are we really to catch these diseases from our furry friends? Is it possible to contract them from pet rats? Let’s take a closer look at what happens when an animal carries a disease that can potentially affect us.

What Are Rat-borne Disease Symptoms in Humans?

If you think about it for a moment, it makes sense that domesticated pets could transmit infectious diseases to their owners. After all, dogs and cats aren’t exactly known for their cleanliness. They shed fur, they lick themselves raw, they urinate everywhere.

Their droppings can contain several different types of bacteria and viruses that may cause illness in humans. Dogs and cats frequently ingest ticks and insects that can spread serious diseases such as Lyme disease or West Nile Virus. Flea bites can lead to irritation and allergic reactions. And did you ever see a dirty litter box? It’s full of germs! All these things contribute to the likelihood of catching a nasty bug from a domestic pet.

Rodents are another story. Unlike most small mammals, rodents don’t tend to come into close contact with people. They live their entire lives outdoors where they feed, nestle, and mate away from our homes and possessions. So why would they carry pathogens that are typically found in the intestines of sickly adults, and pass them along to healthy children?

Well, it turns out that rodents have been shown to carry many different kinds of parasites, fungi, and bacteria that make them particularly prone to carrying infectious agents. For example, scientists recently discovered that wild Norway rats living in New York City carry tapeworm larvae that infect local wildlife, including birds and other rodents.

Another study showed that brownfield rats in Baltimore harbor Salmonella species These findings were corroborated by research conducted in England, where researchers found that wild brown rats act as reservoirs for Mycoplasma gallisepticum, a respiratory tract parasite that causes chickenpox and salmonellosis in poultry.

So far, the only known disease transferred from wild rodents to humans is rabies. But before we talk about that, let’s review some other potential zoonoses.

How Many People Get Rat-Borne Illnesses Every Year?

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that roughly 3 million people die each year due to various forms of infectious diseases. Of those deaths, approximately 60 percent are caused by bacterial and viral infections acquired from other people.
When compared to the number of deaths attributable to household animals, such as dogs and cats, the toll attributed to infectious organisms transmitted by rodents pales in comparison. According to CDC data, roughly 10 percent of all animal-related deaths result from pets.

In terms of specific rodent-based diseases, it’s estimated that about 20,000 people die annually from rabies worldwide. That figure includes both rabid wildlife and victims who contracted rabies after exposure to infected people. However, the actual numbers of people who become ill from rat-borne diseases are difficult to determine because so much of the world still rely on traditional methods for tracking disease outbreaks.

Of course, this isn’t to say that pet rats pose no risk to human health. As previously mentioned, the first documented outbreak of human rabies in the U.S. was traced back to a pet rat owned by a family member who had direct contact with a rabid bat. Since then, there have been numerous reports of pet rats spreading the disease to their owners.

A 2003 outbreak in Oregon involved a 4-year-old boy whose mother brought home an escaped pet young black rat from a nearby farm. Within weeks, the boy began exhibiting symptoms associated with rabies. He died less than two months later.

Another famous incident occurred in London, England, in 1998. An 8-week-old baby girl became ill with a high fever and general malaise following her parents’ visit to Jamaica. Doctors suspected she’d caught dengue fever from mosquitoes that fed on infected blood during her trip.

By the time she returned home, however, the child’s condition worsened rapidly and doctors realized she’d actually developed rabies. Despite receiving aggressive treatment, the toddler eventually succumbed to the disease. Her father refused to believe his daughter had been bitten by a bat until he saw the creature himself.

Are There Other Types of Rat-Transferred Infections besides Rabies?

It’s true that pet rodents can transmit diseases that are typically seen in wild animals, but that’s not always the case. For example, in 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported finding Listeria oncogenes in three samples of rats captured in Philadelphia neighborhoods.

The listeriosis bacterium normally affects warm-blooded animals, including humans, causing miscarriages and life-threatening sepsis. The department speculated that the rats’ proximity to areas where foodstuffs are prepared meant that the bacteria must have been introduced into the population from sources contaminated with meat or dairy products from infected animals or plants.

Another notable zoonotic disease that’s commonly spread by pet rodents is Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). Originally isolated from deer mice (Perognathus longimembris), hantaviruses are now known to afflict multiple species of North American rodents. Once thought to primarily affect agricultural workers who handled infected mice, the disease is currently emerging as a major public health threat in rural parts of the country where large populations of wild rodents exist alongside humans.

Although the exact incidence rate of HPS is unknown, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), roughly 100 people per year develop severe kidney damage and/or pulmonary hemorrhages within 30 days of developing mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. Roughly half of those patients ultimately succumb to complications related to the infection.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Wild Rodent Pests?

Unfortunately, protecting yourself from pest infestations is often easier said than done. First off, there are literally millions of pests that can carry dangerous diseases. Second, you can never completely eliminate the possibility of contracting an illness simply by avoiding contact with wild rodents. Although you might eat organic foods, you’ll never know whether you’re dining on diseased produce unless you test it yourself. And testing can be expensive and hard to set up.

That’s why it’s important to adopt preventive measures like keeping trash outside, eliminating bird nests, removing standing water, sealing gaps under doors, and covering any exposed pipes leading to crawlspaces. Also, consider installing traps like snap traps, plastic snap traps, claptrap, and glue board traps. Finally, you should keep your yard free of rodents by maintaining compost piles, draining water tanks, killing roosting birds, and clearing brush piles.

Wrap Up

Most states require pet owners to inoculate their pets against rabies every four to six months starting at 6 weeks of age. The vaccine reduces the chance of your pet becoming infected with rabies by 99 percent.


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