Are rat bites dangerous to humans?

are rat bites dangerous to humans
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In all my time working as a pest control specialist, I was fortunate enough to have never been bitten by a rat. Fleas, ants and other nuisances yes, but never a rodent of any kind. That said, I was always aware of the risks when dealing with any wild animal, as they are often unpredictable and will retaliate if frightened or when provoked. I did, however, have a rather large farm cat called Ted, who was a natural hunter and prone to taking on the odd rat or two. And although, after each kafuffle he would strut around victorious, he often received a nasty nibble in return for his efforts.

Rats carry a whole host of diseases which can be transmitted to humans and pets through infected bites or scratches or from unknowingly eating and drinking food and water that has been contaminated by rat feces. If you think you or your pet has been exposed to rats and may have been attacked, then it is important to know what immediate action to take and the signs and symptoms to watch out. Take a look at my guide below.

What are the symptoms of a rat bite?

Rats have strong incisor teeth and sharp claws, both of which can easily break the skin. If you are unlucky enough to get bitten by a rat, then the main concern is developing an infection. It is therefore imperative that you look out for the following symptoms and contact your doctor immediately should they occur.

  • Redness around the wound
  • Pain in the joints
  • Swelling or numbness to the area
  • Open wound that is weeping pus
  • Fever and vomiting
  • Rash on the hands and feet, usually appearing two to four days after the fever begins

Most symptoms usually appear straight away, however some may still occur or develop up to three weeks later.

What diseases do rats carry?

It is a misconception that rats are infected with rabies and there has been very little, if any, conclusive proof that it can be spread from rats to humans. In fact, other rodents such as raccoons, skunks and foxes are much more likely to be carriers of the rabies infection.

The two main bacteria’s that rats do carry and that you should be concerned about are: –

Rat bite fever is an infectious disease that is caused by the two bacteria’s above. If left untreated, rat bite fever can cause serious implications to your health and can in some circumstances prove fatal.

What is rat bite fever?

Rat bite fever was first reported in the United States in 1839. Although historically wild rats were the cause – predominantly amongst the poor – today pet rats are the most likely reason for someone to develop rat bite fever. It is especially common with children who like to kiss and play with their pets. Rat bite fever is not contagious and can therefore not be transmitted from one person to another but can be deadly and has a 10-13% mortality rate. I have never, in my whole working career, met anyone who has ever contracted rat fever, despite them being bitten by small rodents.

Another variant of rat bite fever is known as Haverhill fever, named after an outbreak of the disease which started in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1926. Despite its name, this disease can occur without you having to be bitten by a rat. Instead the disease is spread through milk or water contaminated with the bacteria and spread via rat feces.

Rat bite fever symptoms caused by Streptobacillus Moniliformis

Streptobacillus Moniliformis is the most common form of rat fever reported amongst American’s and can easily be treated with a course of antibiotics. Symptoms include pounding headaches, running a fever, extreme tiredness, bumpy red skin rashes, severe muscle pain and vomiting and diarrhea, and these will generally occur around 3-10 days prior to being bitten (often once the original wound has healed). If left untreated, rat fever can cause pneumonia, heart inflammation and meningitis.

A doctor can determine whether you have rat bite fever by undertaking a number of medical tests and will administer a course of antibiotics in order to treat it.

If you have Haverhill Fever, your symptoms will appear identical, however there will be no scratch or bite wound since the rat fever was obtained via ingestion of contaminated sources instead.

Rat bite fever symptoms caused by Spirillum Minus

Although transmitted via rat bites, Spirillum Minus is not generally found in America, with only a few rare cases having ever been reported. Although a lot of the symptoms are similar to Streptobacillus Moniliformis, this strain of bacteria can also cause your lymph nodes to balloon, your throat to become sore and the areas close to the wound to swell. These warning signs develop 7-12 days after you have been infected and if you do not seek medical attention it could result in more serious health implications such as heart infections, pneumonia and hepatitis.

bitten by a rat

What should I do if I get bitten by a rat?

I always used to (and still do) carry a small first aid kit around with me, the contents of which would enable me to treat a rat bite should the situation ever occur. Here are my top tips for treating a rat bite or scratch wound: –

  • Whether it is yourself or someone else, always ensure that your hands are clean and if you can, wear a pair of gloves when dealing with a rat bite.
  • Remove all items of clothing and jewelry that either make contact with or are close to the wound. This is important as the area is likely to swell.
  • If it is an open cut that is bleeding, try to stem the flow immediately by applying pressure. Ideally cover the area with a gauze or bandage, but whatever material you choose, make should that it is sterile.
  • Once the wound has stopped bleeding, clean it thoroughly with warm soapy water before disinfecting the wound, ideally using an antiseptic cream.
  • Finally seal the wound with a bandage.

Depending on the severity of the wound, I would suggest taking age and health appropriate pain relief or seek medical assistance.

kitten with a rat

Rat bites and pets

The most damage a rat bite ever caused to my cat Ted was to his pride, but I always contacted my vet for advice as a precautionary measure. If your pet has been attacked by a rodent then you should seek treatment, especially if you notice a change in their behavior such as nervousness, aggression or depression.

Cats and dogs can be carriers of the bacteria that causes rat bite fever, so although they may not show symptoms of the infection, there is a chance that they could pass it on. As rats are riddled with disease, so you should always ensure that your pets vaccinations are up to date.

rat bite fever

How to prevent rat bite fever

As I often say, prevention is better than cure, so it is important that you take appropriate precautionary measures to protect your family from rats. If you suspect that you have an infestation, then I would suggest looking at ways in which you can eradicate the problem (you can check out my useful blog on “how to stop a rat infestation” here) and look for ways in which you can make your home pest-proof.

Always drink from a known and safe water source and consume pasteurized milk only.

If you own a pet rat, handle it with care and always remember to wash your hand afterwards. Look out for any signs of illness and make sure that it has regular checkups at the vets (oh and make sure that it is kept well away from my cat Ted!).

Make sure that your pets do not come into contact with rats and rodents and if they have been bitten, contact your vet who will administer treatment as required. If you yourself, or someone you know has been bitten by a rat then you should treat the wound, look out for signs and symptoms of rat bite fever and if you have any cause for concern, then visit your doctor immediately.

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