Are Pet Rats Dangerous? What You Must Know

Thinking about buying a pet rat but a bit worried that they might harbor diseases? You shouldn’t worry unduly. While it is possible for rats to carry diseases most pet rats are clean and healthy animals and pose no more risk than any other domesticated animal. You can, as you’ll see, reduce the risks of rat ownership even further if you know what you’re doing.

Are pet rats dangerous? What you must know: generally, pet rats are not dangerous, and you are very unlikely to catch any diseases from them apart from the fungal infection, ringworm. However, it is possible to catch more serious diseases such as leptospirosis, rat bite fever, LPMV and hantaviruses) from pet rats.

So, let’s take a look at how you get sick from a pet rat, the 4 main serious diseases they carry and then how to ensure that you keep the risks, which are already very low, even lower.

Can You Get Sick From A Pet Rat?

It is important to know that, by and large, pet rats do not carry diseases that can be passed on to human beings. In fact, the only real risk from owning rats in the majority of cases is the chance of catching the fungal infection – ringworm.

Ringworm is a minor irritation at best and is easily treated with anti-fungal creams or ointments. It does not pose a substantive health risk to rats or to humans or any other animals that might be infected.

However, there are four diseases (leptospirosis, rat bite fever, LPMV and hantaviruses) which it is possible for you to catch from a pet rat that are rather more serious.

None of these diseases are likely to be present in your rats when you purchase them, and they are only likely to contract them when exposed to either wild rodents or other sources of the disease.

Thus, the main preventative measure you can take to prevent your rats from making you sick, is to ensure that they are kept in a room which is well-secured from other rodents.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the main diseases that humans can catch from rats and then some preventative measures that can help keep you and your family safe.

The 4 Main Diseases That People Can Catch From Rats


What Is It?

Leptospirosis is a fairly uncommon bacterial infection that can affect both animals and human beings. It is caused by many different bacteria all of the “Leptosprira” family from which the condition takes its name.

According to the World Health Organization – leptospirosis tends to affect about 1 in 10,000 people a year but there is a decided bias towards tropical climates. Where it can affect many more people. The disease occasionally causes an epidemic level of problems in certain areas where as many as 100 people in 100,000 can be infected.

In most instances, leptospirosis is contracted from wild rats, but it is not impossible for pet rats to become infected and to pass the bacteria on to their owners.

How Do You Get It?

The bacteria, which cause leptospirosis, live in the infected animal’s body and are only passed out of the body in the animal’s urine. This leads to four possible vectors between rats and humans:

  1. A human being who drinks water that is contaminated with rat urine – this doesn’t normally happen with pet rats, but it’s not unknown in canoeists who are exposed to wild rodent urine
  2. A human being gets rat urine into an unhealed wound anywhere on their body – this might be directly from the rodent or from contaminated soil or water
  3. A human being gets rat urine in their mouth, nose or eyes and again this can also be from soil or water
  4. A human being ends up coming into contact with the blood of an infected rat, this is (fairly obviously) unlikely for most people

It’s worth noting that if you contract leptospirosis it can also be sexually transmitted to other people and it can be passed on if you are breastfeeding.

What Are The Symptoms?

The symptoms of leptospirosis appear out of the blue and while incubation can range from 2 to 30 days most people find themselves with the symptoms after about 5 days to 14 days.

Most people only experience mild symptoms which clear up after about a week. These symptoms are:

  • A cough
  • A fever (complete with violent chills)
  • A rash
  • Headaches
  • Irritated eyes
  • Jaundice
  • Muscular pains in the lower legs
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

About 1 in 10 people with leptospirosis get much more severe symptoms, however, if the disease is left untreated:

It can affect the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the brain and/or the lungs. In all cases, it can be potentially fatal.

What’s The Treatment?

If you have symptoms of leptospirosis, even if they are mild, you should visit a doctor. If they find that you have the condition, they will prescribe antibiotics which are generally effective.

If things have become more severe, you might need to be hospitalized, stronger antibiotics may eb used, you might also need ventilation, dialysis and other treatments. If you are pregnant, they may wish to keep you in hospital for an extended period to monitor the potential infection in the unborn.

Is There A Cure?

Yes, thankfully antibiotics are generally efficacious in curing leptospirosis and if you catch it early enough – you can expect a full recovery.


What Is It?

Hantaviruses are a collection of viruses that generally infect rodents. However, they do not appear to cause any significant symptoms in the affected creatures. Thus, a hantavirus infected rat is going to seem to be perfectly healthy.

This is unfortunate as some hantaviruses can present very serious problems for human beings and there is reasonable evidence that humans can easily contract the condition from infect rodents and from other animals.

How Do You Get It?

In almost all cases, hantaviruses are contracted from rodents. The exception to this rule is the Andes orthahantavirus which is only found in South America (and particularly, in Chile and Argentina) which can be passed from human to human via bodily fluids.

Otherwise, you can only get a hantavirus from either being bitten by an infected rodent or by inhaling its aerosolized poop. We’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the latter is a very unlikely vector within your home.

There is also, happily, no evidence that you can catch hantaviruses from surfaces that it has been in contact with – so, it can only be caught from rats, nothing else.

What Are The Symptoms?

Unfortunately, hantaviruses can be very serious, indeed. They are hemorrhagic fevers with very similar effects as other single-negative-stranded viruses such as Ebola and Marburg. The initial symptoms are mild though and include:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Muscular pains
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

Then if the disease progresses it can result in coughing, shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs, and eventually into Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) or hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS) both of which are very serious conditions which can result in fatalities.

What’s The Treatment?

As with nearly all viruses, there is no known effective treatment for any hantavirus once you have contracted it. If doctors identify the problem early enough, they can help to abate some of the symptoms in intensive care treatment and this may prevent breathing difficulties.

However, once the disease has been caught, it must be left to run its course. It is possible that the drug, Ribavirin, might help treat HPS and HFRS but there’s not enough data to confirm this at the moment.

Is There A Cure?

No, there is no cure and while there are several possible vaccines on the market (and the Korean Army consumes a large amount of these vaccines) there is no generally accepted vaccine and the vaccines that are available do not appear to work on European strains of the viruses.

Seoul Virus (sometimes also called Korea Virus)

Seoul virus is the name of a specific hantavirus which has occasionally been known to be passed from a pet rat to human beings. For some reason many hantaviruses seem to originate in South Korea.

Rat Bite Fever

What Is It?

Rat Bite Fever is caused by one of two bacteria. The first which is common in North America is Streptobacillus moniliformis and the other, which is common in Asia, is Spirillum minus.

The North American strain while colloquially known as rat bite fever is also called streptocillary rat bite fever. The Asian strain, however, is known as spirillary rat bite fever or rather more simply as sodoku. This is not to be confused with the popular number matching game sudoku.

When human beings contract rat bite fever though eating contaminated products, it may also be known as Haverhill fever.

All the names shouldn’t let you take rat bite fever lightly, though, as it can be serious and, in some cases, even fatal.

How Do You Get It?

You can get rat bite fever from several different interactions:

  1. When a rat bites you, as the name of the disease suggests, the bacteria can pass from the rat’s saliva into your body through a bite, open wound, or any mucous membrane
  2. Through contact with the rat’s urine or poop
  3. From surfaces that have been coated with the bacteria (usually by exposure to urine and droppings)
  4. Drinking or eating food that has been contaminated by an infect animal

What you can’t do is catch rat bite fever from another person. So, if you get the disease, you can’t pass it on to a family member, but your rats can.

What Are The Symptoms?

The symptoms tend to start about 3-10 days after you’ve been infected but it can go as long as 3 weeks before you get symptoms.

You should expect to see a fever after 2-4 days of this along with, possibly, a rash on your hands and feet (this is small red bumps). Your joints may become red, swollen and painful.

You may also get muscle pains, headaches, vomiting or sore throats.

These symptoms are not severe, however, if untreated you can end up with abscesses in the body, liver, lung, brain, heart and kidney infections all of which are very severe and may result in the death of an infected person.

The Asian variant of rite bite fever may also lead to swollen lymph nodes and sometimes an ulcer at the location of the original bite.

What’s The Treatment?

The treatment, as with most bacterial diseases, is the use of antibiotics. If you find yourself suffering the symptoms of rat bite fever, you should contact a health care provider and explain that you have rats.

The good news is that if you get antibiotics early enough, the disease is unlikely to show its more serious side and you will quickly get better.

However, once the symptoms become severe – treatment will require hospitalization and further antibiotic treatments and possibly, other treatments as well. Here the prognosis is usually still good, but it is possible to die from rat bite fever.

Is There A Cure?

Yes, rat bite fever is curable through the use of antibiotics.

LCMV (Meningitis)

What Is It?

LCMV or, to give it its full title, Lymphocytic choriomeningitis is a rodent borne viral infection. It was first discovered back in 1933 and it is usually transmitted, not by rats, but by the common house mouse.

It is very, very prevalent in such mice and it’s thought that 1 in 20 mice in the United States carry the disease. Unfortunately, not only can mice infect human beings, they can also infect your rats which, in turn, can then infect you.

Infections from LCMV have been reported all over the world including in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Japan. It may be that many humans have suffered from it and then recovered as antibodies to the disease are present in between 2% and 5% of human populations.

It is very concerning, however, that LCMV in pregnant women is associated with hydrocephalus, chorioretinitis, and brain damage of the offspring.

How Do You Get It?

You can get LCMV from a rodent which has been infected either by exposure to their urine, droppings, saliva or their nesting materials.

This may also happen when you have any of these materials get into your mouth, eyes, nose, broken skin or a bite.

You cannot pass LCMV to another person except under two very specific circumstances: 1.) pregnant women can pass the disease to the unborn child with severe consequences for the fetus, and 2.) through the transplantation of organs.

What Are The Symptoms?

The most common symptoms of LCMV are no symptoms at all. This explains why so many people have the antibodies for the disease without ever realizing that they were ill.

For those who do become ill, you would expect symptoms to manifest roughly 8-13 days after contracting the virus.

You might suffer from any or all of the following at this point:

  • Fever
  • Malaise
  • Appetite loss
  • Muscular aches
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sore throat
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain
  • Parotid pain
  • Testicular pain

Most people recover from this phase without any further issues. However, some move on to a more serious second phase which can show some or all of the following:

  • Meningitis (fever, stiff neck, rash, etc.)
  • Encephalitis (drowsiness, sensory disturbance, paralysis, etc.)
  • Meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and meninges)
  • Acute hydrocephalus (water on the brain)
  • Myelitis (spinal infection)
  • Myocarditis (heart inflammation)

Despite this, LCMV is rarely fatal and it probably kills no more than 1% of its victims.

What’s The Treatment?

As a viral infection there is no useful treatment and while medicine may be given to manage some of the symptoms – most people will recover without them.

The most common drugs prescribed to those with more severe symptoms included corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatories.

There are studies which say ribavirin might help with LCMV but there is no clinical evidence to support these claims.

Is There A Cure?

No, but most people infected with LCMV will recover. You cannot be re-infected with LCMV after you have had it.

How To Reduce The Chances Of Becoming Infected

Once again, we think it’s important to stress that for the vast majority of rat owners – the diseases above are never likely to raise their heads in your life. While they are common in wild rat and rodent populations – they are very rare in pet rats.

The number one source of infection for pet rats is from wild rodents, so the best action you can take to secure your rat’s health and your own, is simply to ensure that they are kept in a secure space where no wild rodents can get it.

If a wild rodent does get into your space, it is as likely to give you the diseases it carries, directly, as it is to pass them onto your pets and then your pets pass them on to you.

There are, however, some simple techniques which can help you further reduce any risks of catching disease from your rats and they are all related to hygiene. How you clean up poop and urine spills, how you clean their cage and how you handle any deceased rats matters.

So, let’s see how to take care of each of those things, in turn. But first some general tips on keeping infection risks to a minimum:

  • Always keep cages clean and don’t allow soiled bedding to stay in them
  • Always wash your hands after handling the cage, the rat or any other materials relating to your rat
  • Try not to kiss rats or allow them near your face
  • Always cover any scratches, cuts, etc. prior to handling your rats
  • Always thoroughly clean any bites or scratches received from handling a rat
  • Don’t allow your rats into your food preparation areas or places that you eat
  • Never use a kitchen sink to wash a cage or equipment – if you use a bathroom sink, clean it with disinfectant afterward
  • Wash your bedding or clothing on a hot wash if you find rat urine on it
  • Always take vermin control measures to reduce the chances of wild animals infecting your pets
  • Try to clean the cage outside or in a well-ventilated area
  • When cleaning the cage, it is a good idea to use a face mask to stop yourself from breathing in particulate matter
  • Try not to keep rats in your bedroom and always keep them in a well-ventilated room (ideally one which is lit by the sun at some point during the day – sunlight kills viruses)

How To Safely Clean Up Rat Poop and Urine

If you are cleaning up the poop and urine of your pets or of wild rodents, you should take some simple precautions to ensure that you don’t contract anything:

  • You should not sweep up or vacuum up their urine, droppings or indeed, their nests. This is because these actions can help to “aerosolize” (that is they make small airborne droplets of the matter) the urine and droppings which makes it very easy for you to inhale it
  • You should wear rubber or plastic gloves and face masks when you clean up after your rodents or wild rodents. It is also a very good idea to disinfect everything between uses if you’re not using disposable equipment. You’d be amazed at how long bacteria and some viruses can stay on surfaces.
  • The best way to remove urine or droppings outside the rat’s cage is simply to get a moist towelette and wipe it up while you are wearing gloves. You should put the used towelettes in a plastic bag and seal them before you drop them into the garbage bin. You should then spray the affected area with disinfectant to ensure that all remaining traces of infectious agents are destroyed – do not use a scented product for this.
  • After you’ve either disposed of the rubber gloves or disinfected them, you should thoroughly wash your own hands. After which, you can remove your mask. Then you should wash your hands again to be absolutely certain.

How To Handle Dead Rats

Obviously, the threat of infection does not end if a rat passes away and it’s important to protect your health and the health of your other rats when you try to handle a deceased rat.

  • Always wear plastic or rubber gloves. These are the best line of defense against viruses and bacteria.
  • Always wear a suitable face mask. You don’t want to breath in viral or bacterial particles as this is a very good way to become sick.
  • You should spray the deceased rodent with some water – this prevents dust particles from carrying viral or bacterial matter in the air. You should place the body in a plastic bag and then seal it after spraying disinfectant in the bag.  You should then also but the bedding in a different bag and do the same.
  • Take the plastic bag with the dead rat in it and place it in another bag. Seal that and then talk to your vet about the appropriate means of disposal or to arrange cremation. The law on this varies from place to place, so it’s best to check.
  • Thoroughly clean the cage after removing the rat from it as well as any toys, bowls, etc. that it might have come into contact with.
  • After you’ve either disposed of the rubber gloves or disinfected them, you should thoroughly wash your own hands. After which, you can remove your mask. Then you should wash your hands again to be absolutely certain.

How To Clean Out A Rat’s Cage

We’ve done a full guide on how to clean a cage under normal circumstances here, but if you suspect your rat is carrying something or have had this confirmed you should:

  • Make sure to put on a face mask and rubber gloves (or plastic gloves) before you start cleaning.
  • Spray the rat’s bedding down with water to prevent any infection becoming airborne. Rinse the bedding in disinfectant and then place it in a plastic bag and seal it.
  • Scrub the inside of the cage and any other items that might have been exposed to the contaminants and disinfect it and any cleaning equipment that was not disposable.
  • After you’ve either disposed of the rubber gloves or disinfected them, you should thoroughly wash your own hands. After which, you can remove your mask. Then you should wash your hands again to be absolutely certain.


We hope that our guide, “Are pet rats dangerous? What you must know” has helped you to understand how to care for your rats in a way that reduces the odds of them getting diseases and from passing them on to you.

Rats are clean, loving pets which rarely pose any risks to their owners. The majority of rat owners will never have to deal with any of these conditions during their lifetime.

Darren Black

I'm Darren Black, the owner, and author of I am from Scotland, United Kingdom and passionate about sharing useful information and tips about properly caring for an animal's wellbeing.

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