Domestic rats make wonderful pets. They are incredibly intelligent, playful creatures who can enjoy nothing more than exploring their surroundings. Many owners have great bonds with their pet rats and handling of these rats is common. But can your pet rat give you diseases? 

The short answer is yes. 

Historically rats have been implicated in spreading some of the most talked-about diseases in history. Including the bubonic plague, also known as the black death. Rodents are able to transmit a number of viruses, bacteria, and parasites to humans. Which can all potentially cause disease in people and some of which can be fatal. 

My rat is a pet and not wild, is it still a risk? 

Yes, pet rats have the same anatomy and physiology as wild rats. Therefore are capable of transmitting the same diseases as wild rats. 

Pet rats can catch diseases from wild rodents and then transmit these diseases to their owners. Pet rats can also catch diseases from each other. So it is important to know the health status of any new rats before introducing them to your current pets. 

The risk of catching a disease from a pet rat is much lower than the risk of catching disease from wild rodents. But there is still a risk. 

What diseases could my pet rat carry that may be harmful to people? 

It is important to note that rats can carry a number of diseases and this list is not exhaustive. Other diseases can also be transmitted but this list covers the key concerns. 

Leptospirosis 

A bacteria found in the urine and other tissues. It can cause mild illness or serious liver and kidney problems in people, a syndrome known as Weil’s disease. 

Hantavirus 

A group of viruses that can be passed on by inhaling particles from bedding, urine, faeces, or contact with rat saliva. Disease in people can range from no symptoms/mild illness to kidney problems, headaches, upset stomachs, and in severe cases bleeding from internal organs and the skin. 
While serious disease is rare, some studies suggest that 34% of pet rat owners will test positive for previous hantavirus infection.

Rat-bite fever 

This is caused by a bacteria carried by rats. It can be transmitted from a scratch or bite, or through the urine. In people, the infection can cause symptoms including a fever, muscle pain, headaches, and nausea. 

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

LCMV 

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) is a virus that can cause meningitis. It can be passed to humans through contact with infected saliva, faeces, and urine. It often causes a flu-like illness in people. But severe illness from meningitis is also possible and pregnant women are at particular risk due to the risk of harm to the unborn infant. 

Read more about diseases you can catch from pet rats here

How do I know if my pet rat has any diseases? 

You should always assume pet rodents are carrying disease until proven otherwise. So it is important if you feel unwell at all that you consult your doctor and advise them that you keep pet rats so they can take appropriate action. 

Your pet rat should be registered with a veterinary surgeon experienced with dealing with pet rodents. It is advisable to talk to your veterinary surgeon before you get a pet rat as they can discuss with you where you are getting the rat from and help you decide if you need to do any tests to check for diseases. While some pet rat breeders will routinely do health checks on their rats, others may not. So it is an important factor to discuss with your veterinary surgeon. 

If you already have a pet rat and are worried that your rat may have diseases that could be harmful to you or your family, your vet can run a number of tests, often on blood and urine samples, to check for these diseases to give you peace of mind. A negative test however doesn’t mean your pet cannot catch this disease in the future. 

What can I do to minimise the risk of catching a disease from my pet rat? 

– Wash your hands immediately after handling your rats or any of their equipment, bedding, or faeces 

– Prevent faeces and urine from leaving the enclosure and wear gloves when removing this from the enclosure 

– Wear gloves and a face mask when cleaning out your rat’s enclosure 

– Supervise children when handling rats and ensure they wash their hands and do not put anything in their mouths or eat when interacting with the rats or their environment 

– Seek medical advice if you or your family member are bitten by a rat or feel unwell after being in contact with rats 

Vetster option 02 (Blog)

– Get your pet screened for diseases by your veterinary surgeon so you know the potential risks posed by the animals you own 

How can I prevent my pet rat from getting diseases that could be harmful to me or my family?

A common route by which a pet rat catches diseases that may be harmful to people is through contact with wild rodents. Therefore it is important to prevent your pet rat coming into contact with wild rodents or their faeces or urine as these can all contain disease. 

Ways of preventing contact with wild rodents include: 

– keeping your rats in a large secure enclosure contained within a larger area where wild rodents cannot enter 

– storing your pet rats feed and bedding in solid secure airtight containers that wild rodents cannot chew through or gain access to 

Other ways of preventing your rat from getting diseases include: 

– Using rat safe disinfectant when cleaning out your pet’s enclosure and equipment 

– Not introducing new rats until your know their health and disease status and have had them examined by a veterinary surgeon, in some cases a quarantine period is advisable

How likely am I to get ill?

Well, the bottom line is that we don’t have much research on the topic. Certainly, you’re less likely to catch an illness from a rat than from another person. And most of the studies available do suggest that the risk of becoming ill for healthy people is no higher than if you owned a dog or a cat, and probably lower.

So there’s no need to panic – although taking a few extra precautions is probably a good idea. Extra caution, of course, should be taken if you or someone in your family has a weakened immune system, as some of the bugs that rats can spread are more of a risk to these people than the general population.

Summary 

  • always assume pet rodents are carrying disease until proven otherwise 
  • the risk of catching diseases from pet rodents is lower than wild rodents but still a risk – always wash your hands after handling rodents and wear gloves and mask when cleaning their enclosures 
  • contact your doctor if you are bitten by a pet rat or feel unwell having been in contact with your rats or their environment
  • don’t panic! But do take a few precautions, especially if you or someone you live with has a weakened immune system. And that advice goes for any pet, not just rats.

You might also be interested in: