A year or two ago, I received an email from Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, who was doing some interesting work looking at different bacteria found in rats in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. This is an impoverished urban neighbourhood with lots of homeless people, IV drug users and HIV-infected individuals... and lots of rats. Dr. Himsworth, a veterinary pathologist working on a PhD at the University of British Columbia, is assessing potential health risks posed by rats to this type of population. The reason she got ahold of me was to see if I was interested in looking for some different bacteria, like methicillin-resistant staphylococci, in these rodents.
If you look, you often find, and that was the case here with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MRSP). This multidrug resistant bacterium was found in nasal or oral swabs from 2.1% of rats (Himsworth et al, Emerging Infectious Diseases 2013). So it was relatively uncommon but certainly present.
One question: from where did it come? Most MRSP isolates found were the same as the most common strain found in dogs, so presumably the rats picked it up directly or indirectly from pets or stray dogs. However, there was also a type we've never run across before. That could mean that there is a separate rat-associated MRSP strain, but more likely it means this strain is present in dogs in Vancouver and we just haven't found in dogs elsewhere yet (there aren't many of us typing MRSP, and we find new strains not uncommonly). While dogs and rats presumably don't spend time lounging around together, there is certainly potential for direct or indirect contact between dogs and rats, and rats have been found to harbour dog-associated oral bacteria in the past.
Another question: what's the risk to people? The risk of infection is probably limited, but not zero. MRSP can cause infections in people but doesn't do so very often. MRSP is unfortunately becoming fairly common in dogs, so people are commonly exposed, yet human infections are still rarely diagnosed. So, the risk to humans from these rats carrying MRSP is pretty low overall, although we'd rather not see new reservoirs for this bug.
What about the rats? Rats may be the innocent bystander here, having been infected by dogs. We don't know whether MRSP causes infections in rats. It probably can in certain circumstances.
Can rats spread this to dogs? I guess it's possible. Rats are probably not contaminating the environment too heavily with this bug from their noses or mouths (compared to dogs), but direct transmission if a dog caught a carrier rat could certainly be possible. The risk to the dog population is pretty low since this pathogen is well established in dogs already and there's a lot more dog-dog than rat-dog contact.
Why does an antibiotic-resistant bacterium live in these rats when they're not receiving antibiotics? Good question. Antibiotics certainly help when it comes to selecting for resistant bacteria, but they're not absolutely required. There are a lot of other factors that can also play a role, so rats don't need direct or indirect exposure to antibiotics to acquire MRSP (or other multidrug-resistant bacteria). It could be that they are just commonly exposed and the bacterium only hangs around for a short period of time, or that there are some other factors in the rats, their food or their environment that select for these resistant bacteria.