Could my pet rats give me Weil’s disease?February 3, 2011
I recently bought a pair of baby rats (handsome fellas aren’t they! ). The first thing my family said when I bought them was “They might have Weil’s disease!” I scoffed at such an idea – of course my baby rats (bought from a well established breeder I hasten to add) don’t have Weil’s.
Now that they are more tame and are perfectly happy running all over me, occasionally piddling on me if I don’t smell ratty enough, and licking my face if I’ve been eating chocolate, I thought that perhaps I’d just better check…
What is Weil’s Disease?
Weil’s disease is a manifestation of leptospirosis – infection with a spirochaete called Leptospira interrogans. These spiral-shaped bugs live in waterways, vegetation and damp soil. Animals (particularly cattle and wild rats here in the UK) can also act as a reservoir for leptospires: they live in the animal’s kidneys and are excreted in their urine into the environment where they can survive for months.
We can get infected if we come into contact with spirochaete-containing water or urine via open cuts, our mucous membranes, or our eyes.
Infection with the bug can present with a range of symptoms from mild fluey signs to, in the most severe of cases, multiple organ failure. Treatment involves antibiotics but obviously it would be better to avoid exposure altogether!
What are my chances of getting it?
Thankfully leptospirosis is very rare in the UK with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) reporting 50-60 cases per year in England and Wales. The main groups of people at risk include farm workers and people who do watersports like canoing etc. in rivers and on lakes. It had been thought that pet rats posed no risk to the public.
In 2006 the HPA with the Veterinary Laboratory Agency (VLA) and Sheffield City Council Environmental Services tracked down the source of someone’s infection to their pet rat and on tracking that back found several others from the same pet shop were also infected. (There’s a really good poster on it here.) So pet rats can carry it and pass it on via spread in their urine.
What am I going to do?
Not much really. I know that these rats have never come into contact with any other rats other than their litter mates, they have never been outside and so at risk of picking it up from wild rats etc and to be perfectly honest I would probably have caught it already if they were carrying it.
It does remind me that I need to carry on taking the basic hygiene precautions I already do (washing my hands and arms after handling them and wearing ‘ratty clothes’ rather than my every day ones around them). I had been thinking about making them a run so they could have (supervised) play outside in summer. I may well still do this but a little more thought will go into how I can keep them away from any source of rat urine!