Avoid Kissing Rats!

Don’t just “pay lip service” to proper pet hygiene…

Avoid kissing rats. That warning from a prominent veterinarian may seem silly since most of us pass our lives peacefully unaccompanied by rats, kissable or otherwise. However, it appears that kissing rats can potentially kill you and it highlights the importance of using proper hygiene around pets of all kinds.

Dr. Scott Weese is a public health and infection control expert with the University of Guelph and Ontario Veterinary College who spends a good part of his time writing about illnesses that can be passed from animals to people. Such transmissible maladies are called “zoonotic” diseases and include rat bite fever, the topic of Dr. Weese’s most recent internet warning.

The alert was issued after an Australian woman was hospitalized for 17 days with what was eventually diagnosed as rat bite fever. Yes, she admitted to kissing her pet rats.

The same bacteria that caused the Australian incident can occasionally be found in the mouths of dogs and other animals too. In another of Weese’s articles, he talks about three people who got dangerously ill after nursing sick dogs and cats – kissing them and sharing a food dropper. These cases were caused by a different type of bacteria than the one responsible for rat bite fever and there are many other organisms that are zoonotic. Smooching with animals is simply not wise.

Along the same lines, a study on the hazards of letting pets sleep in your bed sparked a lot of headlines last year when it highlighted the many serious diseases – from parasites to rabies and even plague – that can be transmitted as a result of this habit. Up to 62 per cent of pet owners apparently sleep with their dogs and cats.

So do we ban pets from bedrooms, handle them with gloves on, stop keeping them in our houses at all? No, even Dr. Weese who probably knows more about zoonotic diseases than any one person should, proposes a more sensible path to reduce risks by simply using common sense and basic hygiene. Be sure your pets are vaccinated, dewormed and treated with appropriate flea and tick controls. Wash your hands after handling them and see a doctor if you get bitten or scratched. On the topic of doctors, be sure to tell your physician what kind of pets you have any time an unidentifiable illness develops. It may help them save your life even if you have been kissing rats.

Incidentally rats can be excellent pets (ed. Dr. Steen’s niece actually has two pet rats both of whom she loves very much).

Much more on the fascinating topic of zoonotic diseases can be found online at Dr. Weese’s “Worms and Germs” blog.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital
February 2012