A Phoenix, Arizona man is suing a pet store after he contracted rat bite fever from a rat he had purchased. It’s not surprising to see a lawsuit following a serious illness, considering people in the US often try to sue for just about anything, but I’m not sure it won’t get very far. I don’t doubt that the man had rat bite fever, or that he got it from the rat he purchased – the question is, is the pet store really liable? Specifically, did they do anything inappropriate?

"Rats being sold to people should not have rat-bite fever," Heitzman’s lawyer, M.E. "Buddy" Rake Jr., tells New Times.

Actually, the rats don’t have rat bite fever… rats are healthy carriers of the bacteria that cause rat bite fever. There are two different bacteria that can cause the disease, Streptobacillus moniliformis and Spirillum minus. Streptobacillus moniliformis is presumably the cause here since it’s the main cause of rat bite fever in the US. This bacterium is very commonly found in healthy rats, with upwards of 100% of healthy rats being carriers. You have to assume that every rat is carrying this bacterium.

"It wouldn’t be any different if they sold someone a dog with rabies," he says. "I’m not in the nuisance-lawsuit business – he was in rough shape."

It would certainly be a different story if the store sold someone a dog that had signs of rabies. It’s possible that someone could buy a dog that had been exposed to rabies but which was healthy at the time of sale, but that’s pretty unlikely. However, a big difference is that there is a highly effective vaccine against rabies. There is no such thing for rat bite fever. If a pet store sells an unvaccinated dog of unknown origin that could have been exposed, despite knowing the need for rabies vaccination, there certainly could be liability issues. Selling a rat that is carrying a bacterium that we assume most or all rats carry anyway is different.

PetCo did not immediately return telephone calls this afternoon, but in its defense, there is an information pamphlet explaining exactly how to avoid contracting rat-bite fever available on the company’s Web site. …though it seems the pamphlet’s best suggestion is to not get bitten in the first place.

It would be better if everyone who bought a rat was given the information sheet, but it’s a start. The fact is, the best way to avoid rat bite fever IS to avoid getting bitten by a rat! Proper rat handling is a very important aspect of disease prevention, since you can never rule out the possibility that a rat is a carrier.

Our suggestion: Don’t have a disgusting rat for a pet.

Whoa.  Rats can make excellent pets. They can also carry infectious diseases. However, EVERY animal can carry infectious diseases, and rats are probably no more risky than most other domestic pets. The key is to take common sense precautions to reduce the risk of injury and infection (though the risk can never be completely eliminated). For rats, this includes selection of a rat that is not aggressive or fearful, knowing how to properly take care of a rat, knowing how to take care of a bite should it happen and being aware of some diseases for which you might be at increased risk because you own a rat.

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