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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 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.
One tragic example of this is the recent hospitalization of a Nashville woman due to rat bite fever. A local Nashville news station reported a woman got sick from a rat she bought at Petco. Another recent example of sickness transmitted by small animals to humans is the salmonella outbreak that is being linked to guinea pigs. The CDC reported that, as of March 2018, the popular child’s pet, has infected 9 people in eight states. One person has been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported.
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 into teaching your children about the proper handling of their small critter and proper hygiene when handling them and cleaning their housings.
Washing Hands is Very Important
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. It’s so important to teach your child the right way to wash their hands after playing with their pets. If your child isn’t very responsible about washing their hands, don’t let them have an animal until they are.
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 and Pocket Animals can be a Risky Purchase
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, well-behaved little pocket animals that teach children the value of responsibility. It’s important to know the risk and take precautions when handling rodents 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 United States. 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 if you get bit by a rat you have about a 10% chance of getting rat bite fever.
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.
Caring for Your Pet Rat
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.
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.
- Grasp it from around the shoulders–just behind the front legs.
- Support its rear end with your other hand.
- Always hold it close to your body. They feel more secure when they are close to your chest.
- 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 after handling their rodents or touching its cage or its contents.
Children with Weak 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. They can even give you tips on where to find healthy yet affordable dog food (or any other kind of pet food) to help your pocketbook out.
Small Animals in Schools
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.
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.
5/3/18 I am loving my kitchen cabinet makeover! White is SO much brighter and cleaner feeling. Now if only they would put the handles back on.
Krystle Cook – the creator of Home Jobs by MOM – put her psychology degree on a shelf and dived into a pile of diapers and dishes instead. She is a wife and mother to two rambunctious boys, sweating it out in her Texas hometown. She loves cooking, DIY home projects, and family fun activities.