As reported on WKTR NewsChannel 3 in Virginia:

“An employee at PetSmart [in Williamburg, Virginia] says she was bitten by a rat on display and is now worried she has rabies. She feels the store isn’t doing enough to help her find out if she has it.

Victoria Verbeeck says she was working at the Williamsburg store on Wednesday morning when a rat bit her finger. The rat had been acting oddly lately, she said, but she had handled it before. “It turned around and just chomped down on my finger,” she said. “I was more like that really just happened.”

Since it happened, she says PetSmart hasn’t been acting fast enough in helping to get the rat tested. With the holidays, she says she was told she’d have to wait until Monday to get help from PetSmart because corporate offices are closed until then.

A spokesperson from PetSmart says the company is taking the situation seriously. The health department is now overseeing the testing, according to the spokesperson. It’s not clear when the results will be available.”

What is the risk of rabies?

  • Exceptionally low. Although rodents can be infected with rabies (as can any mammal) they rarely carry it (likely because they are usually killed by whatever animal may have transmitted it to them in the first place).  However, low risk doesn’t mean zero, so the woman’s concerns shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Is rabies the only concern?

  • No. In fact, there are other more concerning issues, such as rat bite fever, a potentially nasty infection transmitted most commonly by (not surprisingly) rat bites.

Is the delay in testing that the woman has encountered a problem?

  • For rabies, no, particularly for a minor bite of an extremity. There’s time to get things sorted out and a few days isn’t a concern. The stress of the wait is the biggest problem.
  • The wait is most relevant in terms of other potential infections, since those develop quicker.

How will they figure out if rabies is a concern?

  • For some species (e.g. dogs, cats), it’s well defined. If the biter is still alive and normal 10 days after the bite, the animal could not have been shedding rabies virus at the time of the bite. Rules are less clear for other species and those are handled on a case-by-case basis, but given the very low risk of rabies in rats and the fact that rats are not a reservoir species, a quarantine period would probably be reasonable in a case like this. However, figuring out why the rat was acting "oddly" and if there is any evidence of a neurological disease component is important. If the rat has neurological abnormalities, immediate euthanasia and rabies testing would probably be recommended.

What’s the big issue here?

  • It amazes me that a company like this would not have a comprehensive and well-communicated bite policy. A well-thought-out and scrutinized policy should be available in all stores and readily accessible to all personnel. It takes time to get a good policy developed, but it’s worth it based on the amount of time that’s saved down the road after bites like this (which are probably quite common but not typically reported) and it can help prevent bite-related complications and concerns. Hopefully they actually have a good policy, but the fact that they have to wait until corporate offices are open to find it highlights a problem.

 

  • Maureen Anderson

    The other curious hiccup in this case is that testing of the rat was even left up to the company. Any bite from a mammal in which rabies is a concern (including an rat acting “oddly”) should be reported to Public Health, and it is the Public Health Unit’s responsibility to determine if testing or observation is required and to make the necessary arrangements. It sound like this case got to Public Health eventually, but rabies testing is not the company’s responsibility. However, if they had a proper bite policy as Dr. Weese suggests, it would hopefully also include instructions to contact Public Health right away for any potential rabies exposures, which would help avoid any unnecessary delays in testing.