A Colorado family is suing PetsMart and a rat supplier after their son developed rat bite fever (RBF), following a bite from a newly acquired rat. Lawsuits seem to be increasingly common after zoonotic infections, which is probably more of a reflection of an increasing tendency for people to sue, not an increasing occurrence of zoonotic diseases. However, questions of liability, and the responsibility of both the purchaser and the seller are interesting to consider. Here are some statements in a report about the lawsuit, with my comments:

They claim the pet store had ample evidence that the rat was sick, but sold it anyway.

  • Firstly, it wasn’t sick from Streptobacillus moniliformis, the bacterium that causes RBF. I don’t doubt that the rat was sick but that really doesn’t have anything to do with the risk of RBF.
  • Secondly, if it was so obvious, why did they buy the rat? Buyers have a responsibility to learn about pets they are considering buying, to pay attention to animals they are purchasing and take measures to protect themselves. If they put even a minimal amount of effort into researching pet rats, they would have hopefully learned about RBF, things to consider when selecting a rat, and how to manage bites.

"The rat originally sold to [the father] Robert and Steiner was ill and died," the complaint states. "This rat became aggressive and at the same time sneezed a lot as if it was ill. Robert was then given a substitute rat which was also ill and infected with rat bite fever. It displayed the same behavior as the first rat about one week after it was given as a substitute for the first rat.”

  • Same issues as above. It wasn’t sick from the bacterium that causes RBF. I doubt they actually confirmed that the rat was carrying the bacterium (as is suggested here) but it presumably was, since that bacterium is found in pretty much every rat.
  • Also, if they bought a sick and aggressive rat, did they really think a rat from the same store at around the same time would be any different?

The family claims the rats "were not inoculated carefully," but were subjected to a shoddy batch immunization.

  • I wonder what they were actually "inoculated" against. There are no standard vaccines for rats, and no vaccine against RBF exists.

Rainbow, upon information and belief, is known by members of the public including P.E.T.A. [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] to negligently and carelessly maintain the animals it sells to PetsMart and this fact is known to PetsMart at all times relevant including before the sale of the rat."

  • That wouldn’t surprise me. Mass producers of pets, be it rodent warehouses or puppy mills, aren’t known for their quality of care. However, that’s a separate issue. It needs to be addressed more broadly but isn’t related to the risk of RBF in this case.

This isn’t meant to blame the victim. It’s unfortunate that the child got RBF. Pet stores and suppliers need to do a much better job of providing only healthy animals. However, at the same time, there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of disease transmission and people have to learn what to do to reduce the risk, and then actually use those basic, common sense practices. There are certainly situations in which pet stores are negligent, but it’s hard to argue that this is the case here, when they’re dealing with an infection from a bacterium that is present in all rats.

More information about rat bite fever can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources – Pets page and in our archives.