Pets and Your Family: When Small Animals Cause Huge Injuries

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bearded dragons head

Are you thinking about purchasing a small pet for your child? Many parents will head to the pet store to purchase one after their kids tell them that they want to get a “cool” one to keep in their room. We usually give in and get them one because we think they will teach our children life lessons, such as kindness and caring towards animals or the many responsibilities of pet ownership. Many of them are also bought as “starter pets” for larger animals like cats and dogs for our kids later. However, these small “pocket animals” can sometimes spread diseases that make children sick.

Diseases that can be passed from animals to humans are termed zoonotic in nature, and there have been dangerous outbreaks linked to small pets that have made national headlines recently. Todd Nissenholtz, a Cofman Townsley, St. Louis personal injury lawyer is knowledgeable about many types of accidents (auto, class action, slip and fall, etc.). He states that no matter what injuries you have suffered, you shouldn’t have to pay for an injury that wasn’t your fault. His firm handles dog bite cases in Missouri where dogs have attacked people and injured them and knows that small animals can cause serious personal injuries, also.

One tragic example of this is the recent death of a child from rat-bite fever. Star Tribune online reported the story about the death of a ten-year-old boy from California that reportedly died from a bacterial infection from his pet rat that his family bought at Petco. Another recent example of sickness transmitted by small animals to children is the salmonella outbreak that is being linked to bearded dragons. The CDC reported that, as of April 2014, the friendly lizards, who are a popular child’s pet, caused 132 people in 31 different states to get sick since 2012–most of them under the age of five.

Does this mean that children are doomed forever from having a little friend to crawl up their arm? In most cases, no, but some thought needs to be put in to teaching your children about the proper handling of their small critter and proper hygiene when handling them and cleaning their housings.

The Caring and Handling of Reptiles

Reptiles such as lizards, turtles, and snakes carry salmonella. There are mammals that carry it, too, such as baby chicks and rabbits. All pet animals should be treated as ones that can transmit diseases from improper hand washing, so it’s important to teach your child the right way to wash their hands after holding their little pets or cleaning their homes. If you notice your child is not very responsible about washing their hands before dinner, or in other situations where it’s appropriate, it’s suggested they not have animals until they become more responsible.

Here are the CDC’s recommendations for proper handwashing procedures after handling animals that carry salmonella or cleaning their cages:

  • Wet hands with warm or cold running water, then turn off the sink and apply soap to palms.
  • Lather needs to be worked up by rubbing hands together. Make sure your child cleans thoroughly, lathering the backs of their hands, in between the fingers, and up under their nails.
  • Scrub your hands long enough, for a minimum of 20 seconds. How much time is that? Tell your child they aren’t finished lathering and washing their hands until they hum the entire “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end two times.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Rats: A Risky Pet if Not Cared for Properly

Many people purchase pet rats for a little companion for their child. Their little wriggly noses and button eyes remind you of “Stuart Little.” They’re usually intelligent and well-behaved little pocket animals that teach children the value of ownership and responsibility. It’s important to know the risk and take precautions when handling rodents and their housing to be able to prevent the spread of disease.

Lately, there have been some serious health outbreaks associated with rat bites. In fact, there are more than two million animal bites that happen annually in the U.S. and rats are responsible for about 1% of these cases–and some of those bites have led to cases of rat-bite fever. The popularity of rats and the number of households that have them has increased so much that they are now responsible for over 50% of the rat-bite fever cases in the United States.

Rat bite fever has been found predominantly in rats and mice, but other “pocket animals” are carriers of the disease. It’s been found in infected ferrets, guinea pigs, gerbils, cats, and dogs. When cats and dogs carry the disease, it’s not transmissible to humans, and these two animals usually get it after biting an infected animal, such as a rat.

How to Handle Your Pet Rat Correctly

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help to have the rodent screened for rat-bite fever; healthy rats carry it along with sick ones. People can contract rat-bite fever from bites or scratches from infected animals, or even just by handling an animal with the disease. It can also be contracted by consuming food or drink contaminated with the bacteria. It is not spread from person to person.

Merlin the rat--super sweet

One of the biggest steps in prevention of rat-bite fever is proper handling of the rat. If the rat feels secure in the way it is handled, it will rarely bite. Give it a couple of weeks after bringing it home from the breeder or pet store before picking it up. Here is the suggested way to pick it up after it’s used to being in the new home.

  1. Grasp it from around the shoulders–just behind the front legs.
  2. Support its rear end with your other hand.
  3. Always hold it close to your body. They feel more secure when they are close to your chest.
  4. Covering their eyes can make them feel less afraid.

If your rodent is nervous, sit down while holding them. They can leap from your arms quickly, so if it does happen, they won’t have much of a distance to fall. Children need to always thoroughly wash their hands with the proper hand washing procedures recommended by the CDC earlier after handling their rodents or touching its cage or its contents.

Children with Compromised Immune Systems

Special thought needs to go into the purchase of a pet for a child with a compromised immune system–this goes for larger pets such as cats and dogs, too. Health care providers and well-meaning friends sometimes advise you to get rid of your child’s pets because of confusion regarding the health risks of owning a pet. If you keep your pet healthy, though, the potential health risks of a child owning a pet have shown to be low, and the advantages of it can outweigh associated risks–depending on your individual situation.

Your vet can provide helpful information on keeping your pet healthy if you will be getting one for your child. Ask them to recommend the right type of pet for your family, proper care and feeding of the animal, and how to provide the right environment for it.

Small Animals in Schools and Daycare

Schools and day care facilities often keep small animals for study aids for children. There are a number of reasons that this is a controversial practice, but the main reason being that they carry diseases–and the school may not be as careful as a child’s parents as far as safeguarding children against transmission of the disease. Small animals are often handled daily at schools and daycare, and this increases the risk of your child being infected.

This can be a very bad idea where legal possibilities are considered, also. Diseases carried by small animals are well-understood and diagnosed, so a competent personal injury attorney will know how to back track these illness to the cause, which could make the facility legally liable for breach of reasonable duty of care.

Many animals are kept as family pets without any incident. If you consider buying one for your child, remember, the risk of zoonotic infection is low, but it is always a risk to your child. Weigh the risks, and if you do decide to purchase one, assume all rats are infected with rat-bite fever.  If the pet rat bites a family member after you bring it home, clean the open wound thoroughly. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if a rodent bites your child, and they begin to run a fever.


Holly Chavez is a multidisciplinary writer who enjoys writing entertaining and offbeat articles for families to enjoy. You can catch up to her on twitter @hollyleichavez


  1. This is a very interesting article! I had no idea people have pet rats, much less there is a proper way to handle them. Good stuff!

    • A pet rat probably wouldn’t be my first choice either Sarah. I think mice look cute sometimes though. My 3 cats would have field day if my boys ever wanted such a pet so it probably wouldn’t be the best idea for my family.

    • Holly Chavez says:

      Gosh, Percy is getting a complex over here! He says he never bites and considers himself quite the handsome bachelor. He’s a big fan of Game of Thrones fan, but not a big fan of Mr. Tiggles, our cat, who would like to have him for lunch. Percy and Tiggles have to be supervised together or they might have a brawl!

  2. Ok this post gave me the creeps such animals are not what I would call a good pet

    • Holly Chavez says:

      I know. A lot of people don’t like the little reptiles and rodents, but little boys often like them….frogs and snails and puppy dog tails (and rats and lizards!) Thanks for reading Jo-Anne.

  3. You really give a lot of unusual choices for pets for children. Lots of great information and I particularly liked that you brought up children with compromised immune systems. Not sure about a rat, but I guess if cared for properly. Now a lizard would be fun, but then I think their probably best just to watch lizards in your garden.

    • Thanks! I’ve never had a pet rat but I have had lizards. Just little anoles that I caught as a kid. My son is big on catching these and wants to keep one. I haven’t decided if I’m going to let him do it or not yet.

    • Holly Chavez says:

      Hi A.K. our rat is actually pretty cool. We have a couple of rabbits, too. My son is pretty attached to Percy, and he’s smarter than I thought he would be. Never had any problems from him (always reminds me of Willard, though). Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Paul Graham says:

    Krystle and Holly, thanks for a very informative post on small pets. You cover many points that would not be apparent to some potential buyers and one cannot always rely on pet store owners to be fully knowledgeable or to provide a completely balanced picture.

    • Thanks Paul! I have been to many pet stores where the “knowledgeable” person is just a teenager just trying to get a buck. They often don’t know many of the issues surrounding not the norm pets.

    • Holly Chavez says:

      Hi Paul. You’re welcome! I had small pets when I was little, and there was no information available to me as I was growing up. I hope this article makes a difference to all pocket pet owners or potential orders. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. I was a little boy once and have always disliked rats. I can’t imagine why anyone would want a rat or for that matter find any kind of reciprocated love from one. Maybe I am ignorant on the subject but a reptile or rodent are not pets. Very informative post though. Thanks.

    • I can see your point about not receiving reciprocated love Tim. Not very much fun I agree. I suppose it’s more about just taking care of something else that needs you for some.

    • Holly Chavez says:

      Hi Tim,

      I grew up in Arizona, and my brother would bring home some weird pets for me when I was little. He brought a horned toad and darned if that wasn’t the friendliest little critter. He loved to have his head scratched like a puppy. I was kind of on the fence about the rat, but changed my mind since we have one. I actually like Percy. The cat does, too, but for a different reason! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Oh no, don’t tell my kids their guinea pig is dangerous! Actually, we are very careful about supervision with her, both for her protection, and the kids’. But I can’t imagine our life without her. I hope she’s a little safer than a rat or reptile.

    • Honestly I don’t know much about guinea pigs. I have a friend who has a few guinea pigs. She loves them! Are guinea pigs affectionate?

    • Holly Chavez says:

      There’s warnings about all rodents, but I have a pet rat and some rabbits (technically they aren’t rodents). We wash our hands, and we’re fine. Our next door neighbors have guinea pigs and they don’t have an issue. The CDC has information about guinea pigs and other rodents that is very informative if you would like to check I think your kids will probably be fine with Mr. GP, though.

  7. You write the most important, informative posts. Every time I read one of yours I keep thinking I hope many parents are reading this. There seems to be an increase in pocket pets, as you call them, often without much thought to how to care for them. Again, a great post.

    • That’s sweet Lenie! I know Holly appreciates that. As far as pocket pets are concerned I think people just want them because they think they are cute and little. Seems like the littler something is the more people want it. Has to be fuzzy though, usually.

  8. This was a cool post. When I taught school we had a pet rat in the classroom named Harry. He was a very popular addition. The kids worried about him and took great care of him. I do believe he loved it. When I left the school he was still doing well and there was a fight over who would take him to their classroom. 🙂

    • Aww, kids love animals. Almost any animal. It’s always fun to see what they will do next and how they react to things.

  9. I had gerbils as a kid and they were mean. I always wore winter gloves when putting my hand in their cage. Then, one got out and got stuck in fan of the furnace 🙁

  10. Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) says:

    I had no idea that these animals could carry such diseases! But then, I’ve never considered any of the above when I did have pets and was thinking of owning one! I say stick with the cats and dogs 🙂 Maybe a goat that eat the grass… just kidding 🙂

    • I’m like you I just stick to the normal pets but I have a feeling my son will be wanting a lizard here soon.

    • Holly Chavez says:

      Hi Jacquie, I got the dogs and cats, too. Dogs, cats, bunnies, 1 rat. The Border Collie is scared of all of them!

      I am afraid of what she would do if I put a goat in the back yard. The other dog is a herder, too. That goat would never be lost!

  11. Thanks so much for this post. I used to have a pet rat and really could’ve known some of these things beforehand.

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