Parents of Aidan Pankey, a 10-year-old California child who loved his pet rats and who died last year, say he was killed by his male rat, Alex, who was purchased from a Petco store in San Diego. Previous to owning Alex, Aidan had a female rat named Oreo, and wanted her to have a husband. In late May, 2013, his grandmother, Sharon Pankey, took him to the pet store where Alex was purchased. Two weeks later, the California boy presented with flu-like symptoms. He spent much of June 11 at the doctor’s office, but was sent home with the flu. Later that night, he awoke with severe pains, stomach problems and a high fever. His grandmother reported that he could barely stand. After managing to walk downstairs to her room, he collapsed. She called 911, and Aidan was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. There is no mention of where the boy’s parents were during this incident.
Rats can carry a bacteria called streptobacillus moniliformis that can be passed on to humans through scratches, bites and even contact with their food and water. For this reason, Petco has flyers and an online PDF explaining how to care for pet rats and warning pregnant women, young children (any child under the age of 5), and immunocompromised people not to handle rats and to consider not having them as pets. The information says rats are potential carriers of “rat-bite fever,” and that caretakers should wash their hands before and after feeding and handling rats. They also provide a link to the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) related site. The agency’s website warns people who handle rats frequently to wear gloves, wash hands before and after handling, and avoid touching their mouths after having contact with the animals.
California’s San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office found the child’s cause of death to be streptobacillus moniliformis infection, proving one of his pet rats was, in a way, responsible for killing Aidan. On Monday, Feb. 24, the Pankey family sued Petco for an unspecified amount, and for emotional and economic hardship. The lawsuit says that the store should have tested for the disease, and that they should have known about the rat’s health. The lawyer for Aidan’s family, John Gomez, says the family waited this long to sue because they were waiting for confirmation of whether or not the rat Alex was a carrier of the bacteria. This required testing by the federal Centers for Disease Control. The CDC said this past Tuesday they could not “immediately confirm” test results, but the lawsuit has been filed.
Cases of rat-bite fever have been rare in the US. In the past they mostly occurred in infested, poverty-stricken homes. Now that rats are becoming popular pets in California and elsewhere, incidents are rising but are still under-reported, as most children do not die. The incident of death from rat-bite fever is low, and is limited mainly to those who do not get treatment. According to the CDC and other sources, a course of penicillin is highly effective in treating the infection, but because it is rarely seen, doctors do not yet have the awareness about its symptoms. The literature on this bacteria, including that on Petco’s care sheet, says it is mainly controlled with proper hygiene. First aid care if a child is bitten also goes a long way, but because of possible hand-to-mouth contamination, basic hygiene is a main factor.
Rats at Petco cost between $7.99 and $9.99 depending on size. A lab test for the streptobacillus moniliformis bacteria costs $58, and is not as yet widely available.
By Julie Mahfood
Iddex Radil Diagnostics Laboratory