This is a common question and concern for new pet owners. The short answer is yes, it's possible, but highly unlikely. Here we will discuss the possible diseases you could pick up from your pet, and how you can minimize the risks of infection.
It is important to note that you are no more likely to contract a disease from pet rodents than you are from any other type of pet. People have been keeping rats since the 1800s and mice from as long ago as 1100 BCE. They make wonderful pets for the right person.
African Soft-fur, 12 days old
There is only one known cause of RBF in North America, and it is a bacteria called Streptobacillus moniliformis. This bacteria is transmitted through direct contact with a rodent, or through contact with something that has a rodent's bodily fluids on it (i.e. saliva, urine, or feces). Rats are the primary carrier, but other rodents can transmit it as well.
Young children or anyone that is immunocompromised are at higher risk for this infection. Thorough hand washing is very important, so please make sure to wash your hands after handling or caring for your pets.
The symptoms of RBF include fever, vomiting, headache, muscle pain, joint pain or swelling, or a rash. RBF can become fatal if left untreated, but if caught early it can be cured with antibiotics.
There has not been enough research done as to the true number of rodents that carry this bacteria, but it is important to remember that thousands of families keep pet rats and very few ever contract RBF.
Both humans and rodents can become infected with Salmonella. Common symptoms include diarrhea and, in humans, fever. In people, most cases can be treated with increased fluid intake, although the very young, old, or immunocompromised may required antibiotics. Rodents can carry Salmonella without any clinical signs.
Contracting Salmonella from pets is very rare. Most people contract this disease from eating contaminated food, but it is always important to wash your hands after handling or cleaning up after your pets.
Leptospirosis is another disease caused from a bacteria, specifically those found in the genus Leptospira. There is a wide range of symptoms found in humans and if left untreated it can lead to severe complications or even death. Rodents usually show no symptoms.
Transmission to humans occurs from contact with infected animal urine; you could become infected from water, dirt, or food that has been contaminated. Humans are probably more likely to become infected from outdoor activities than from pet rodents, since most pet rodents are kept indoors and their exposure risk is low.
This is a family of viruses that is known to cause illness in people and show no clinical signs in pet rats. New World hantaviruses (those found in North and South America) can cause Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) and hantaviruses from Europe and Asia are known to cause Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS).
Most people in the US who contract a hantavirus do so from contact with wild rodents. However, there was an outbreak of Seoul Hantavirus in 2017 among some ratteries in the US. Rat breeders across the country worked with the CDC to identify infected ratteries and since this time reputable breeders have closed their ratteries to visitors to decrease the risk of their animals being exposed to this virus. Most cases reported to the CDC came from the western part of the US and less than 800 cases have been reported since 1993, with only 18 being reported in 2018.
Since wild rodents are known to carry this disease it is very important that you do not bring wild rodents into your home, especially if you have pet rodents.
LCMV is a rodent-borne viral infectious disease that is most often carried by the Common Mouse (Mus musculus) but can also be found in other rodents. Humans are most likely to be exposed to this disease from wild mice.
In humans, LCMV most often causes meningitis, although there may be no symptoms or just a mild fever. Rodents often shed the virus and have no symptoms, although it can occasionally cause kidney problems and death.
Any time you handle or play with your pets, or clean up their bedding or soiled cage furniture, it is extremely important to get into the habit of washing your hands with soap and running water. This simple task can drastically reduce the risk of exposure, especially in children.
You should never eat or drink when playing with your pet rodents. Doing so may increase the risk of exposure to disease. It is also important to avoid bites and scratches. Be mindful of your pet's body language - if it seems fearful or defensive it is best to not pick them up unless absolutely necessary. The safer your pet feels, the safer you will be.
It's an unfortunate truth that most pet stores acquire the animals they sell from wholesale breeders. This means that quantity is usually emphasized over the quality of the animal. While most breeders will have closed facilities (this is normal and for the animals' safety), your breeder should be willing to provide pictures of the siblings (if any) and parents of the pet you are seeking to adopt. They should be willing and able to answer any questions that you have about their animals and the species they are breeding. When you pick up your new pet it should have no nasal or ocular discharge, be alert and in good condition, with a healthy looking coat.
While many pet rodents can go their whole lives without ever needing a trip to the vet, it is very important that you know where to go in the event your pet has a medical problem. Many veterinarians don't see "pocket pets" or exotics, so make sure to do your research on what veterinary care is available to you. As a general rule, we recommend you consult your veterinarian if you feel your pet may have an issue. Our motto is "better safe, than sorry".