If you are considering having a rat as a pet, it is a good idea to understand that any rodent, including domestic, can carry diseases. This includes hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits and gerbils, for example.
Pet rats can potentially carry illnesses which are only seen infrequently in people, so they might be considered rare. However, the risk is still very real. These diseases vary from the plague, which is of course one of the biggest killers in the history of humanity, to lesser known diseases such as tularemia.
There is a risk of contracting illnesses from all pets, and we don’t want owners or potential owners to be put off. The risk of contracting an illness from a pet rat is very low, and not necessarily any higher than any other pet.
However, just so you are aware of some diseases that they can carry, here’s a list of the top six to be aware of (plus lots of tips on how to best avoid your rat contracting them)…
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease caused by the bacteria Leptospira, and the commonest way of contracting the disease from your pet is via their urine. It is interesting to note that rodents carry these bacteria, but so do cats, dogs, and some farm animals too.
If your pet rat is carrying the disease, it is often not visible, as they can be carriers and have no symptoms.
Leptospira is transferred from a rats urine, and if it is around the cage, this is where the bacteria will be found. The manner of transmission is through the soft tissue of the eyes or nose, and cuts in the skin.
This is why pet owners must wash their hands thoroughly when dealing with their pets droppings, cage cleaning, as well as general handling of their rat. The bacteria can also enter through a cut in the skin.
Symptoms of the infection in humans include headaches, fever, body aches, upset stomach and jaundice.
It can be very serious if not attended to, and people can experience kidney or liver failure in the worst-case scenario.
Leptospira is rare in certain countries and other countries more common. People who spend a lot of time outdoors, swimming in lakes and dams, could contact it through the urine of animals near the water. Farmers and farm workers could catch it from their livestock.
The hantavirus can be contracted from inhalation near the droppings of rats and mice, and there are many variants of the virus.
Some are found more often in certain areas and countries, and each virus will result in different symptoms being experienced. Different species of rats will carry different strains of the virus.
One of the more common viruses that you can contract from pet rats is Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
As the name suggests, this virus will attack the lungs and cause breathing issues.
The virus can cause severe illness and even death if not attended to.
The virus is contracted by simply breathing in the airborne particles near animal droppings that carry the disease. Over time, this virus has spread over most of the world, but is extremely rare in the UK and Mediterranean areas.
One of the hantaviruses in Europe is found only in mice, and in many species of mice, this is known as the dobrava hantavirus. So as you can see, these hantaviruses are common worldwide, and different ones are more prevalent in different areas.
This disease is found more commonly in wild animals, and pets can come upon it by being bitten by a wild animal or eating infected meat.
The tick, for example, can carry tularemia.
Raw meat can often carry it, that is why it is often not advisable to give our pets raw meat. It is extremely rare and probably rarer in our pet rats, but not so rare in wild rats who are opportunistic and will eat pretty much anything and everything they can get their hands upon.
The signs and symptoms of contracting the disease is often a result of how a person contracted the virus. If a person is bitten, then the site of the bite will show signs of inflammation and swelling.
Then go on to have fevers, chills, headaches, and at times swollen glands.
It might just be worth mentioning your lifestyle habits, and if you have been bitten by a rat or other animal, then tell this to the doctor aside from letting them look at these types of symptoms.
Tularemia can affect different systems in the body depending on the site of infection, so other areas can be affected, like the respiratory system, the eyes, ears and other areas of the body. [Source]
In terms of your pets, just ensure that they are not outside unsupervised and they should be fine and try and stick to safe foods for them like specially prepared feeds that are far away from these types of hazards!
Never feed your pets raw meat. Although transmission is probably very rare it does occur and because it is not spotted as an animal opportunistic disease it can be missed by doctors.
4. The Plague
The plague is carried to animals by particular fleas and ticks from certain areas where the plague is more common. This disease comes from infected rats and is carried by the fleas that bite them, so the likely hood of your pet rat carrying the plague is super slim, which is handy since the plague is very serious if not treated promptly!
This disease becomes more of a threat if you have a cat or dog and you are traveling into areas where plague exists.
It is highly unlikely that you and your rat will be traveling into such an area, but if you are aware that plague does exist in your area, then don’t take your rat outside unsupervised and check their coats often for fleas.
Signs of the plague include fever and sores around the body.
5. Rat Bite Fever
This infection is bacterial and is carried by rats simply by the natural flora that exists in their bodies, namely their noses and mouths.
The main mode of transmission is via bites and even scratches from your rodents. Once again, because the symptoms are pretty universal, it can be hard to detect, so you’d have to mention to your doctor that you’ve been bitten by your rat or scratched.
Headaches, diarrhea and swollen glands are the usual culprits. Problems only occur if not treated, and if not, there can more serious infections occurring. This can include serious infections in the lungs and heart, for example. [Source]
6. Salmonellosis or Salmonella
This is another bacteria that can be transferred from animals to humans, and can be found in the stools of your pet rats too. It is very treatable, but is particularly dangerous to smaller children and the elderly.
Most people have heard of salmonella with food poisoning, but it is often in the feces of our pets too!
The usual symptoms can be present diarrhea, vomiting, and headache with fever.
Other Possible Rat Diseases
Other common diseases that can be caught from pet rats are lymphocytic choriomeningitis and Monkey Pox.
Although this is not found in domestic rats, it can be transferred from mice infesting and infecting a home to our pets. Monkeypox can be found in monkeys, rats, mice and rabbits.
There are hosts of diseases you can contract from your pet rat or any domestic pet for that matter. It is fairly rare, but like anything, good hygiene should always be practiced when dealing with pets.
Once you are in the habit of washing your hands before and after handling pets, you will eradicate the probability of contracting anything much.
Another way to ensure that your home is disease-free is to look after their home correctly.
Here are some important tips for cleaning a rats cage:
First of all, do not shake their bedding to air it. Rather, remove it without causing any airborne particles to escape.
If you are very concerned, you can make a bleach bottle with one part water and one part bleach, and spray their bedding if you are planning to reuse it. Leave for a while, then wash and replace.
If a particle is airborne, it can infect the lungs and nasal cavities, as explained earlier with the hantavirus and tularemia, and it will infect the site it lands upon.
A good way to avoid all of this is to purchase bedding you can discard safely. There are plenty of substrates that absorb urine and most of the moisture around droppings. This can be scuttled up and placed in a plastic bag, then thrown away in an appropriate bin outside.
Tie the packet well, as remember, people have to clean away discarded waste, and it is responsible to ensure that they do not have to deal with open packets of rat waste.
When cleaning a pets cage, always glove up with disposable gloves. There are all sorts of types to purchase online, and these will stop your skin from coming into contact with droppings, urine, as well as salvia.
Some people use absorbent paper towels, and this is a good option. Remember to glove up before removing the paper towels, and to not shake up any of the debris into the air. If you have a lot of rats and feel there is a lot of droppings and urine, you can remove your pets and spray with the solution of bleach and leave for five minutes or so to kill viruses and bacteria.
Keep cages clean in general with a solution of bleach and water, and keep in a spray bottle. This way, you can get into smaller areas and leave the bleach solution to do its work. Leave it for around 5 minutes, then rinse well and pat dry. Air the cage so as not to disturb your pets.
Remember their safety is paramount, and ensuring that they are not poisoned by bleach or chemicals is just as important as removing potential bacteria and viruses.
Some stores stock cleaners that are not toxic to animals, and also do a good job of cleaning away any potential threats, so it might be worth your while to look at these options.
Be careful if using essential oils when you are cleaning your pets cage. Some homemade mixtures, as well as some essential oils, are very toxic to pets.
Some rodents can enter your home and cause infections that will transfer to you or your pets. Keeping your home clean to avoid this is the best route to go.
When you handle pets, ensure that you wash your hands well. You don’t need antibacterial soap. Regular soap will do the job, but regular soap takes a little more diligence than antibacterial soap, which cleans away bacteria faster.
Teach children good habits when handling their pets, and don’t encourage them to place rats near their mouths where saliva can form droplets on their lips.
If anyone is bitten by your rat in the family, keep an eye on the bite and look for swelling or redness, which is an indication that the area is becoming infected. This is handy if you do have to visit the doctor and help him with your treatment plan.
Most people will never suffer from an illness from a pet rat, because generally hand-washing and clean cages are more of a habit than something we have to learn. Keeping your pets sleeping and living area clean is probably the first thing a pet owner will think about and do without much effort.
There are many diseases and viruses that can be transferred from pets to owners, and often these diseases are passed to the rat from other animals or dirty living conditions. If you do take your pets out of their cage to play on a lawn, then keep an eye on them. This is where it could become dangerous for them, not only for disease’s sake!
Always be aware if you come down with a mysterious bout of aches, pains and runny tummies, this could have come from your pet, and tell your doctor that you do keep a pet so that he can make a more informed diagnosis.
If your pet bites you, then keep an eye on the bite, as well as learning new ways to hold your pet to avoid being bitten again.
Finally, a clean cage and home will mostly eliminate diseases and viruses that come from domestic pets, as you will not experience cross-contamination from wild animals to your domestic pets, but always be aware that some pets just have a natural flora for bacteria to form in their mouths and urine.
A good clean cage and the habit of washing your hands is the first port of call when dealing with your rats, and should be done when you handle them and clean their homes!