Rat-bite fever on the rise as rodents become popular pets

27 May 2010

Rat-bite fever may be seen more often now that rats are becoming popular as pets.

Microbiologists told colleagues at the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases annual scientific meeting in Darwin today that cases of the fever, historically associated with slum-dwelling, were reportedly increasing in other population groups.

The known victims have included owners of pet rats, pet store workers and lab technicians. Others at risk include anyone engaging in recreational or occupational activity bringing them close to rats, such as public utility workers, Perth medical microbiologist Dr Tim Inglis said.

Dr Inglis, from the PathWest Lab at QEII Medical Centre, said the handful of cases reported was “probably the tip of the iceberg”.

“A bit of a new development is an increasing preference for exotic animals as pets,” he said.

“If people are going to keep these animals as companion animals then there are potential risks depending on where animals are sourced from.”

PathWest staff reported on the case of a 13-year-old girl who went to hospital with 3 days of fever, headache, vomiting, lethargy, painful joints and a rash. She responded rapidly to antibiotics, and 5 days later pathology results revealed her illness was caused by Streptobacillus moniliformis — which causes rat-bite fever — and it turns out the girl did own a pet rat.

Dr Inglis said untreated rat-bite fever could have serious complications, including life-threatening bloodstream infection.

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