Everyone has heard that rats were (at least partially) responsible for spreading the plague. It’s no wonder they get a bad rap!
But are rats really “filthy” animals? Can they make you sick? And is it safe for you to keep pet rats?
It’s true that pet rats can be carriers of certain germs that they can potentially pass on to their owners. Following a few hygiene guidelines, though, you can safely keep pet rats and have a lot of fun with them.
To find out how to safely keep pet rats and minimize the risk of illness, read on below!
Are Rats Safe Pets?
Can Pet Rats Make You Sick?
Wild rats are known to carry diseases, the most famous example being that they allegedly carried the fleas that spread the plague (more specifically, the bacterium Yersinia pestis). Though further studies have shown that it was actually humans who were responsible for spreading the plague1, the image of disease-ridden rats has stuck.
It’s true that wild rats and pet rats can transmit diseases to humans. These types of diseases – which can be transmitted to humans from animals – are called zoonoses2.
You might have heard about rat bite fever, which is caused by the bacteria Streptobacillus moniliformis or Spirillum minus3. It is transmitted via rat bites, or by contact with food or water that has been contaminated with rodent faeces. It’s usually easily treatable with antibiotics, if diagnosed early. It’s therefore crucial to tell your doctor that you keep pet rats!
Another bacterial infection that can be transmitted via rat urine is leptospirosis4,5. The symptoms are fairly unspecific – fever, vomiting, sore muscles and chills. Leptospirosis, too, can be treated with antibiotics. On a side note, leptospirosis is also contagious for dogs6, so it’s important to keep your pet dogs away from anything that could be contaminated by rat urine.
A rather rare illness that can be transmitted by rats is lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) infection4. Rats can also pass on gastrointestinal infections such as salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis or campylobacteriosis4. These are characterized by diarrhea and only rarely cause serious illness. Just like other pets, rats can be carriers of ringworm, a fungal infection of the skin7.
Is My Pet Rat A Health Hazard?
After reading about all the diseases above, you’ll probably think that keeping pet rats is dangerous.
In truth, pet rats very rarely pass on infections to humans. In fact, most pet rats don’t ever come into contact with these germs at all, as they tend to be kept indoors and away from potential sources of infection.
As a safety precaution, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommend that certain people refrain from keeping pet rats altogether: Families with children under 6 years of age, pregnant women, or people with weakened immune systems.
These groups are at a greater risk for serious illness and should not keep pet rats; or avoid contact with them if other household members keep pet rats8.
For everyone else, pet rats are generally safe pets. Let’s find out which hygiene guidelines to follow when keeping pet rats.
Hygiene Tips for Keeping Pet Rats
To minimize the risk of disease transmission, there a couple of hygiene guidelines to follow when handling your pet rats8. Always wash your hands after touching your rats or their cage. When cleaning the cage and its contents, use a laundry sink or a bathtub and disinfect the area well afterwards. Don’t use the kitchen or bathroom sink for cage cleaning!
When you play with your rats, avoid kissing them or holding them close to your face. You can let your rats kiss and nibble your hands, just not if you have open wounds. As tempting as it is, you should not share food with your rats.
Do you let your rats roam freely around the house at times? That’s the best playtime for them and you can keep enjoying it! Just make sure that they don’t have access to the kitchen or other areas where you prepare and eat your food.
If one of your rats plays rough and you get scratched, disinfect the wound thoroughly right away. Should you get bitten deeply, seek medical attention.
1. Dean KR, Krauer F, Walløe L, et al. Human ectoparasites and the spread of plague in Europe during the Second Pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2018;115:1304-1309. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/6/1304.full.pdf.
2. World Health Organization. Zoonoses. 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/zoonoses.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rat-bite Fever (RBF). 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/rat-bite-fever/index.html.
4. NSW Government Health. Staying healthy during a mouse plague. 2021. https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/ENVIRONMENT/FACTSHEETS/PAGES/MOUSE-PLAGUE.ASPX.
5. Mori M, Bourhy P, Le Guyader M, et al. Pet rodents as possible risk for leptospirosis, Belgium and France, 2009 to 2016. Euro Surveill 2017;22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29090679/.
6. The Guardian. Rare disease spread via rat urine kills seven dogs and leaves dozens of Australians ill. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/10/rare-disease-spread-via-rat-urine-kills-seven-dogs-and-leaves-dozens-of-australians-ill.
7. MSD Vet Manual. Disorders and Diseases of Rats. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/all-other-pets/rats/disorders-and-diseases-of-rats.
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pet Rodents. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/small-mammals/petrodents.html.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by form PxHere
Nina has a degree from the Veterinary School in Zurich, with a special focus on microbiological research. Nina has a passion for sports, nutrition and the outdoors and she loves all pets, but rats have a special place in her heart. When she’s not working or reading and writing about all things related to pet health, she loves to travel and surf.
As a small animal veterinarian, Nina is your go-to expert on pet health and nutrition.