Recently, the television show The Doctors did a segment on Rat Bite Fever. I don't watch reality news/"expert" commentary TV shows because they tend to run thin on the reality aspect and heavy on the sensationalist aspect, and this episode is no exception.
The segment can be viewed here.
So let's address the things that are said here one by one and check the statements given against researched facts.
1. Headline displayed on the big screen on set (video time stamp: 0:00) : "Pet Rat Kills Boy."
This is a sensationalist headline and nothing more. The statement implies intent on the part of the rat to harm the boy. In fact, the rat did not kill the boy. An infection from the bacteria Streptobacillus moniliformis killed the boy. The rat was carrying the bacteria. It is a resident bacteria that is common in rats, mice, guinnea pigs, weasels, squirrels, and ferrets, among others and can also be carried by dogs and cats. It rarely causes disease, either in the animal or in humans, and when it does, it usually resolves on its own. Cases that require treatment can be easily treated with penicillin, among other antibiotics. It is rarely ever fatal. It is no more true to say the pet rat killed the boy than it would be to say a mother killed a child if she had an infection that unintentionally spread to her child, causing death.
2. "Luckily we haven't [talked about rat bite fever before] because it is not real common" (time stamp: 00:10).
There have only been 200 documented cases of rat bite fever in the US since 2004.
3. "If you get a rodent from the pet store, if you catch them in the alley, however you are doing this to make a pet for your child, you really should get the rodent tested for this" (time stamp: 00:15).
First, pet rats are domesticated and are not caught from an alley or in the wild. Domesticated rats have been selectively bred for generations, selecting for temperament and color/conformation and in the cases of good breeders, for health, since the late 1800's early 1900's. In the US, the early lines of domesticated rats were started from laboratory rat lines in the 1920's.
Second, this bacteria is a resident bacteria. That means it exists commonly in healthy rats and other animals without causing disease. In domesticated rats, the colonization rate is anywhere from 10% to 100%, and in wild rats it is between 50% and 100%. It would not be uncommon to find a healthy domesticated rat is carrying this bacteria, but it is very rare for this bacteria to cause disease in a rat or an exposed human. Rather than spend money to test for the bacteria, assume they are carrying it. Practice good hygiene to reduce risks. Wash your hands after handling the rats or cleaning the cage. Clean and disinfect rat bites or scratches that break the skin. Be aware of the disease so that if you or your children develop flu-like symptoms after a bite, you can inform the doctor of the bite, and if you or your children develop severe symptoms or symptoms that do not resolve in a few days, you can see a doctor and inform them you have pet rats. The key to prevention is not testing rats for a common resident bacteria, but is instead practicing good hygiene and being informed about the potential dangers so that you can inform your physician if needed.
4. "It's not just a bite or a scratch." (time stamp: 00:25)
While most cases result from a bite or a scratch, it is possible for the bacteria to enter the body in other ways, for example, via contaminated food or water. Yet another reason why the show should have been promoted good hygiene rather than fear mongering.
5. "Most rodents are carrying these bacteria normally and they don't appear sick." (time stamp: 00:33)
POSSIBLE BUT NOT FACT
As cited above, the colonization rate is between 10% and 100%. That is a huge range. "Most" would have to mean more than 50%. That is possible, but not established. Responsible rat owners provide vet care for their pet rats and commonly treat respiratory infections (common in rats) with the same antibiotics that are effective against this bacteria (eg, Doxycycline). It has been suggested that because of this, many of our pet rats no longer are carriers of the bacteria.
It is true that almost all rodents carrying the bacteria not only "don't appear sick," they are not in fact sick. As cited above, it is a resident bacteria that normally does not cause disease.
6. "To be clear, any animal can carry infection and disease." (time stamp: 00:45)
This is the most accurate and helpful statement in the entire program. Too bad they immediately contradict themselves, recommending that rodents not be kept as pets. In fact, the CDC website has a list of zoonoses (diseases that can be spread from animals to humans) on their website, organized by animal. The list for dogs and cats far outweighs the list for pocket pets, which include rats and other small mammals. Domesticated rats are no greater risk than any other animal and are actually much less of a risk than most other pet choices. There are very few illnesses that can be spread from rat to human and the CDC doesn't even consider rat bite fever to be a disease needing reporting.
7. "If you have a pet in the house, and there is any one, especially your child, who gets bit, and a fever develops, you do not just hang around and see what happens." (time stamp: 01:25)
Another helpful and informative statement. Do your research before jumping into pet ownership. Know what diseases can be spread by your animals. Tell your physician about your pets. Getting proper treatment is key and knowledge and communication is the way to do that.
8. "I would take it a step further and recommend that you not get rodents as pets." (time stamp: 01:52).
This is bad advice that they countered on their own show in this very segment just a few seconds ago, when they said that all animals carry bacteria. Rodents are no more dangerous than dogs and cats, and in fact, there are fewer zoonoses that can be spread from rats than from dogs and cats. In this very segment, they already established that this disease is rare and that all animals can potentially spread disease, so there is no reason that they should be singling out rodents now.
Reference: http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/browse_by_animal.htm (and their own show segment)
9. "You know what they are really selling them for is to feed to snakes." (time stamp: 02:05)
Petco does sell feeder rats, but they also sell rats as pets. From Petco's own website:
"Rats are highly intelligent, loyal and one of the most under-rated small animal pets. Unlike the common misconception, rats are incredibly clean and docile animals. Rats are easily tamed pets that thrive on interaction and bond with their pet parent. They are social and are best kept in same-sex pairs. Rats are playful and enjoy a variety of toys and activities such as exercise wheels and anything that encourages climbing and exploration. Like other small animals, a rat's teeth grow continuously throughout their life, so they should be provided with chew sticks to prevent them from becoming over-grown. The types of rats available include Dumbo, Hairless, Hooded, Albino, Siamese and endless other color variations. There's sure to be a rat suited to meet your physical preferences, and its personality is sure to win your heart!"
They are clearly not just selling them to be snake food. In fact, while Petco does sell feeder rats, Petsmart refuses to sell feeder rats and mice and only sells their rats and mice as pets. If you walk in to a Petsmart and tell them you want to buy a rat to feed to your snake, they will not sell you one.
There is in fact a rat fancier organization that has created show standards for breeding rats, including documentation of the desired physical form and desired marking for all the recognized marking and coat types. You do not develop show standards for an animal that is meant only to be fed to a snake.
Rats are so much more than food. The very same rats we keep as pets and use in laboratories are being used in Colombia and other drug-torn countries to sniff out landmines. APOPO trains their HeroRats to detect landmines in Africa and Asia and to detect tuberculosis much more quickly and cheaply than standard laboratory tests, saving many, many lives.
In Holland, rats are being used by the police force to quickly detect and identify gunshot residue, explosives, and drugs at crime scenes.
It is clear that this statement was just pulled out of thin air with absolutely no research to back it up.
10. "Because they ARE disease carriers." (time stamp: 02:12)
TRUE BUT MISLEADING
This is true, but they have already established that all animals are disease carriers (see statement number 5 above). In fact, rats carry fewer zoonotic illnesses (can be spread to humans) than most other types of pets, including cats and dogs. If you are going to recommend that rats not be kept as pets because they carry bacteria, then you must advocate that no animals be kept as pets. Rats are actually one of the safest pets to own by this logic.
10a. (ADDED 3/19/14) "Use protective gloves, use even protective eyewear if you need to." (time stamp: 02:22)
TRUE and FALSE
This was brought up in the comments and I had initially left it out because it is both true and false at the same time. However, in retrospect, all of the statements made should be addressed, so I am adding it back in for the sake of completeness.
First, the TRUE portion of the statement. The CDC does recommend wearing protective gloves when handling rodents to reduce the risk of exposure. I could not find a reference to protective eyewear on the CDC site, but since touching the eyes is a common way of infecting the body with bacteria, eyewear could go hand and hand with gloves (although the CDC seems to be more concerned with hand to mouth exposure rather than hand to eye exposure). Reference: http://www.cdc.gov/rat-bite-fever/prevention/.
That said, rat bite fever occurs most often in people who work in laboratory settings handling lab rats and in people who live in poor conditions with rodent infestation. In this context, the CDC recommendations make perfect sense. (Reference: http://www.healthofchildren.com/R/Rat-Bite-Fever.html). Any time you work with animals in a professional setting, especially when that is a laboratory environment, wearing protective gloves is a no-brainer. Likewise, any time you have intentional contact with a wild rat or its environment, wearing protective gear is common sense.
Now, the FALSE side of the coin.
A pet environment is a completely different thing. It is true that wearing protective gloves would reduce the already extremely low risk of contracting rat bite fever, but wearing protective gear around tame domesticated household pets for fear of a very rare (and treatable) condition, is extremely excessive. Once again, emphasis should be made on good hygiene, clean conditions, and being informed about the risks. Protective gloves are no more necessary when handling pet rats than they are when handling any other pet. If you wouldn't recommend someone wear protective gloves around their cat, then you needn't recommend it around a rat. I have no reference for this. It is simply common sense.
11. "But sometimes it can be in the air also" (time stamp: 02:25)
Rat bite fever is spread by contact, not via the air. According to the CDC, it can be spread by bites and scratches from infected rodents, handling rodents with the disease even without a bite or scratch, consuming food or drink contaminated with the bacteria.
12. "If anyone can take [something] away [from this], it's what you said. It's not that the rat necessarily came from Petco or any other pet store, rats, rodents carry disease." (time stamp: 03:08)
That is not what should be taken away from this story. What should be taken away is that all animals carry disease, not just rats and rodents. Rats are actually less likely to carry diseases that can be spread to humans than other animals. But all animals carry disease and everyone should do proper research before getting a pet, should be aware of such illnesses and know what to look for, should practice proper hygiene and keep clean cages and environments, should treat sick animals with veterinary care and guidance, and should report any pets and bites to their physician if they become ill.