The Truth About Rat-Bite Fever

Jul 19, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Rodent Ramblings

by Shannon Carr

Shannon Carr is a volunteer with Rattie Ratz Rescue in the bay area of California. Each month KRL will be featuring at least one animal rescue story, and every other month there will be one from Rattie Ratz.

National news of rat-bite fever places negative spotlight on four-legged “pocket pets”
Rabies a much larger issue: Kills 55,000 worldwide annually

Despite experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claiming that rat-bite fever is uncommon in the United States, recent events have brought the long misunderstood, four-legged critter front and center under a negative spotlight once again.

“RBF is rare in the United States. Accurate data about incidence rates are unavailable because the disease may not be reportable to state health departments,” the CDC website states. “RBF has a case-fatality rate of 7-10% among untreated patients.” rats

Tragically, 10-year-old Aidan Pankey died last June after contracting rat-bite fever about two weeks after his grandmother bought him a pet rat from a Petco location in San Diego, according to a lawsuit filed in February against the pet-store chain. The lawsuit was not filed until this year because attorneys were awaiting the lab results from the CDC, which tested the rat to confirm it was infected, Attorney John Gomez told The Associated Press. The agency could not immediately confirm the results to the news organization.

Unsurprisingly, this recent national news has placed rescue groups and people alike falling under the auspices of the rat umbrella under the microscope. And, in turn, Rattie Ratz’ goals of creating a positive image for rats has become even more difficult.

We’ve heard it all before. Unfortunately filth, plague and pestilence are what rats are known best for in popular culture. And a lot of this stereotype primarily stems from the infamous Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague speculated to have killed over 75,000,000 people during the mid-1300s. But it was actually transmitted by the fleas of warm-blooded mammals in general. Rats appeared responsible for the plague only because they were so common.rats

Fast forward and we are seeing a noticeable increase in questions about RBF, a notably “obscure” disease. At a recent Pet Food Express Walnut Creek fair in late June a small boy was bit by one of our adoptable rats in attendance that day. Let me preface this story by saying the little boy is fine and the mother has calmed down and appreciated the follow up.

The issue of RBF Fever arose. While it is an extremely rare disease, based on this incident, we are working on a training program to make sure that each one of our volunteers is prepared to handle questions about this in a sensitive and informative way.

“We have worked with Rattie Ratz Rescue at our stores for many years,” Mike Murray, Director of Community Outreach for Pet Food Express, wrote in a recent e-mail. “In choosing rescue group partners, we want groups that take their obligation to their animals and to public very seriously. Educating the public about the health and care of rats as well as providing information on topics such as rat-bite fever are vital, and Rattie Ratz has always taken that obligation very seriously. Which we appreciate and admire a great deal.”

Rattie Ratz volunteers believe the key in addressing this issue is to take the “rat” out of the equation when explaining it, which is actually easy to do since diseases transmitted by cats and dogs are so much more common.

“In the U.S., rabies represents a serious threat to the health of people and animals,” the CDC website states. “Every year, rabies kills more than 55,000 people worldwide and the costs associated with rabies are estimated to be more than $300 million in the U.S. alone.”

In general there are very few diseases that can pass from rats to humans–way fewer than with dogs and cats, since rats don’t go outside and come in contact with wild animals and bugs that might carry diseases. That’s one of the advantages of rats as pets–they don’t need or get any vaccines, because they don’t get exposed to new bacteria and viruses after you bring them home. rats3

As such, we advocate a common-sense approach to avoiding pathogens while interacting with ALL pets, including rats. Meaning you probably shouldn’t be in any pet’s face if you’re immune-suppressed or immune-compromised, and hands should be sanitized or washed after touching a pet and before touching food or your face.

In addition, no rat is put up for adoption by Rattie Ratz without undergoing significant health and behavioral evaluations by experienced volunteers. Every rat we take in will spend time in foster care under observation, and if health concerns or negative behavior occurs those fosters are not generally adopted out or sent to an adoption event like the ones we hold at Pet Food Express.

All major rat health conditions are easily detectable to the trained eye, and in any case, there are very few diseases that can be passed from rats to humans. Unfortunately, RBF is one of those diseases, and rats are generally asymptomatic carriers of the bacterium, which means that a rat may transmit it without looking or acting sick.

We hope that the improvements we are working on implementing will enable us to continue our productive relationship with Pet Food Express.

“We are sad the boy was bit by one of our adoptable rats at our PFE adoption fair,” Tahna emphasizes. “Moving forward we will always have up proper signs warning not to put your fingers through the bars of the cages. In the future we will field questions about RBF with facts and sensitivity.”

For more information about nonprofit organization Rattie Ratz, our monthly events, volunteer opportunities or to make a donation, visit

Rattie Ratz President Tahna Myers and volunteer Anne Abramson contributed to this article through correspondence shared following the incident.

Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section & watch for more stories from Rattie Ratz every other month. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to Rattie Ratz.

Shannon Carr lives in San Jose and works at the Morgan Autism Center. In her spare she has been active with Rattie Ratz since adopting from the organization at a fair held at For Other Living Things in Sunnyvale. In her spare time, she enjoys freelance reporting, riding her bike, going to the beach, swimming, hiking and camping.


  1. Thank you so much for the informative article–as a former rat rescuer, Rat Bite Fever came up a lot as a concern.

  2. Wow! I had pet rats for YEARS and I have NEVER EVEN HEARD OF rat bite fever! Thanks for this informative article!


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