We would like to share some recent discoveries about a virus that has been found in some rats. The Hantavirus is carried by rodents and can be transmitted to humans via dried excreta and urine or saliva. The rodents are not affected by it and do not show any symptoms. The Seoul strain (not to be confused with other strains of Hantavirus) has been detected in the wild rat population of certain parts of the country, and it has also been identified in some rats from a breeder. The Health Protection Agency are investigating by inviting rat owners to be tested for antibodies by way of a blood test at their local GP, which will give an indication of how widespread it might be. The results will take a week or two and when updates are published they will be added to here. Once systems have been put into place, it will be possible to have this done anonymously.
There is no need to be unduly concerned, but it would be sensible to let the doctor know if you come down with flu-like symptoms especially if any are kidney related. As a precaution, wear dust masks and gloves when cleaning out, and discourage rats from cleaning your mouth or nose. It cannot be transferred between humans, nor from human to rat.
At the present time no UK Rat Clubs know anything conclusive and continue to take advice from the Health Protection Agency. Any statements made about this virus within the Fancy Rat population within the UK at this present time would be pure conjecture.
It is also worth remembering that there are other diseases that can potentially be caught from rats, and at this stage there is nothing to suggest this virus should pose any more of a worry than they do, so there is no need for panic. It's probable that either only a few pet rats carry it, or it is widespread. If it is widespread then clearly the risk of becoming ill is very low or there would have been many cases by now.
Further information is included in the following statement by Lisa on her own situation, along with some answers to FAQs:
The last few weeks have been a distressing period for me and it has come time to share some important information with the Rat Fancy. Please read to the end as there will be some useful guidelines.
Last November one of my relatives was hospitalised with an unknown illness. During the two months he was in hospital just about every test was carried out to identify the cause and this was eventually traced to Hantavirus. As this requires that the Health Protection Agency (HPA) be informed the doctors at the “Rare & Imported Pathogens Laboratory” were involved.
When they discovered that my relative owned rats they asked to take some tissue samples from them to test. They also proved to be positive for Hantavirus. As these rats had come from me almost two years ago I agreed to allow them to take tests from my rats and also from myself and Robert. All of these tests came back positive also. Of the 20 rats tested, 7 of them were actively excreting live virus, the others all showed positive antibodies to some degree or another, indicating that they had either been exposed to the virus or were carrying it in a more dormant phase.
Our personal tests also showed positive – with Robert’s blood work showing a much higher antibody count than my own. Curiously he had been ill in November 2011 and they were able to test some blood samples from this time – also positive but at a much lower level than at present. This has led them to believe that it was a Hantavirus infection he had then.
This presented me with a stark choice. While we both carry some immunity from the virus due to our antibodies, not enough is known about the wide range of Hantavirus strains to be able to tell us that we were safe from infection. With the extremely limited data they had it was felt that the risk was too high and we reluctantly agreed to having all of the rats put to sleep. This was carried out last week.
It is important to stress that this is a rat->human infection, human->human isn’t possible and they have been no known cases of other animals being infected by contact with infected rats. Rats that have the disease show no signs or symptoms of any illness.
The lead at Porton Down, Dr Tim Brooks, suggested that in his opinion this disease will prove to be endemic throughout the Rat Fancy and his team are keen to start testing for this as soon as they can. More details of this will be available shortly. In the meantime they are beginning a testing process for concerned rat owners.
Anyone wishing to be tested will need to contact their GP to arrange a blood sample to be taken which will forwarded to Dr Brooks and his team. At the present time these tests aren’t anonymous – that should also follow shortly. To speed the process along there are two documents to present to your GP – one is an open letter from my local HPA consultant to the GP explaining what is happening and the other goes with the sample to identify it to the lab. If you wish to be tested, please contact me (email below) for a copy of the letter and form. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE TESTS ARE VOLUNTARY AND NOT A REQUIREMENT.
The HPA should have general advice available in the next few days regarding handling, cleaning etc. Online there is some advice from the American CDC which will form the basis for what they are drafting.
Until the HPA can get advice out to the medical profession on what to look for they suggest that rat owners and their families be aware of the symptoms in humans. Initially it is like a bad cold or flu – the two known cases had kidney infection as a part of this. If you do have a bad cold or flu make sure you mention this to your GP – they can speak with the HPA to get more specialist advice.
No one is able to say where this infection has come from. As mentioned above, Dr Brooks believes that the virus is common throughout the fancy rat population. As the illness is so similar to flu in humans, unless there were complications along with it people may have been infected without ever knowing. By chance my relative lived in very close proximity to his rats and used what the CDC regard as unsafe methods for cleaning them out. Combined with a period of inactivity due to a serious ankle injury he was at a low point physically and may have been more susceptible to the virus.
If you have any questions please contact me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org
) – I can answer you privately and generate some FAQ (with identifying information removed) that others can use. Also, as soon as the HPA have any more advice or information I’ll put it up for all to read.
Lisa & Robert Harries
PLEASE NOTE: Please do not send me a message every hour until I reply. I promise I will get back to you within 24 hours.
1. Can other pets be affected by this virus? (Dogs, Cats, hedgehogs, Chinchillas, gerbil, degus, ferrets)
At present the HPA is unaware of other species being infected. Generally speaking each strain of a Hantavirus is confined to one species: This is SEOUL stain linked to Rattus Norvegicus.
2. If people agree to testing, and their rats test positive, will they be forced to have them removed/put to sleep?
No. The HPA will make recommendations should animals be tested positive. Example: If 20 ratteries are tested but only 3 are positive they would recommend euthanasia in those 3 positives to close out a localised infection. If the infection is much more widespread they would be less inclined to recommend such a course of action. Even in the one known case, the HPA are not enforcing anything but have recommended a course of action.
ETA Fancy Rats wrote:
It has been suggested that Local Authorities may be likely to make euthanasia compulsory where rats are confirmed as excreting hantavirus. They would not be able to do so if the test has been done anonymously.
3. Should we (Rat Fancy) be worried?
Again without data it’s impossible to answer this. Statistically from a risk point of view the HPA know of one outbreak with 4 humans coming into contact with infected rats. Of those 3 show a positive level of antibodies – 2 of whom got sick. This would mean this strain of virus carries a very high risk. If (as Dr Brooks already suspects – albeit without proper evidence) the disease is endemic through the rat population and a lot of people have been exposed – the risk is low.
4. Is there anything we can reasonably do?
Again this depends on how widespread the infection is. If it’s common then to stop the rat fancy would be valueless. You can individually protect yourselves to some extent, especially when cleaning your cages. A dust mask (the primary route is inhalation of infected particulate) and gloves (urine is another source) are simple and easy. Ideally dampen the bedding with a mild disinfectant to lower the dust and wash your hands etc. If you (or others living in proximity to the rats) get sick with flu like symptoms – especially if there is associated kidney problems make sure you inform your doctor so they can arrange immediate screening.
5. Is it likely that you brought infected rats to any shows recently and caused possible cross-infection?
Yes this is almost certainly a route for spreading the infection. As noted above the primary cause is the dust raised from bedding that has been contaminated spreading in the air. However there is no sign of disease in infected rats so there would be no means of detecting this infection to know that showing / breeding / homing animals was a risk to others.
6. I have had rats from your stud?
It must be stressed that my stud was simply the first to have the virus identified, and that solely down to a relative getting sick. There is nothing to suggest that my stud was the source. Any rattery or stud that has had any contact with any rat from outside the Rat Fancy could have been the initial infection (Wild rats are known to carry the virus – perhaps a rodent farm bred a wild rat, sold to a pet shop, animal wasn’t domesticated enough and was sent to a rescue & got rehomed…)
At this stage I would say no until more tests have been carried out by the HPA and we have more of idea how wide spread this really is.
7. How is this transferred rat to rat?
There are two stages of infection, active & dormant. In the active phase the rats excrete live virus (& in their urine). Other rats come into contact with that infection either through direct contact or by inhaling contaminated dust particles (especially from bedding etc)
7b. This is the same route for infection rat-human. There is NO means of infection human to human
8. Do we know anything about how long rats can carry/shed the virus for?
The rodent will be infectious for prolonged periods, probably for life.
9. Google. There are a lot of pages on Google that appear to relate to Hantavirus in rats. Almost all of them are totally unrelated to this infection – so please don’t read them and try to apply them. The UK team at Porton Down are fully involved and working with the National Fancy Rat Society towards a solution that works for all.
to minimise demands on Lisa and Robert at what is clearly a difficult and distressing time for them and their family.