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What is Rat-Bite Fever?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Rat bite fever is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is transmitted from animals to people, which is most common in Japan although it can be seen in other regions as well. People contract rat bite fever when they are bitten by rats or mice which carry the bacteria responsible for this condition. Fever is the characteristic symptom of the disease. It is highly treatable and in most cases can be resolved very quickly with a course of antibiotic therapy.

Two different bacteria can cause rat bite fever. Spirillum minus and Streptobacillus moniliformis are both transmissible from rats or mice to people, but not from person to person, so someone who has this disease is not at risk of passing it on to someone else. This condition is also known as spirillary fever, streptobacillosis, streptobacillary fever, or sodoku, depending on the region of the world where it is diagnosed and which bacterium is responsible.

Onset of rat bite fever occurs between two and 10 days after exposure. The area around the bite may become inflamed and itchy, and the patient will experience muscle pain, joint pain, headache, nausea, chills, vomiting, and the characteristic fever. In some cases, the condition can resolve on its own without treatment although this can take months. In other cases, the patient may develop complications which could lead to death. For this reason, it is usually recommended to seek treatment for rat bite fever.

The patient may not remember having been bitten. If someone presents with these symptoms in an area where the disease is common and she or he has an open sore or irritated area on the body, these can be indicators that the patient may have rat bite fever. Diagnostic tests can be run to see if the bacteria are present in the body and antibiotics can be prescribed to treat the infection.

This rare disease is most common among people who handle rats and mice, such as lab workers and pet store employees. People can get the disease from pet rats and mice as well. People can reduce their risks of contracting rat bite fever by exercising caution when handling animals and when they are in areas of the world where this disease is common, it is advisable to only drink pasteurized or sterilized fluids because the disease can be passed through liquids and to avoid exposure to rat and mouse droppings.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Chmander — On Aug 24, 2014

I'm actually quite surprised that so many people who work in labs are able to contract rat bite disease so easily, as well as pet store employees. Considering how they spend a lot of time handling those animals, it's not hard to see why that's possible. Regardless, knowing what they're up against, you would think they'd be at least a little more careful, or use smarter safety procedures.

By Viranty — On Aug 23, 2014
@Euroxati - Well from my perspective, rat bite fever can be a lot more common in pet rats, since unlike the wild ones, they don't carry rabies. However, you are right though in the sense that contracting rabies seems to be a lot more common than the disease being discussed in the article.

However, on another note, I do think it's interesting that many people might not even remember being bit. One reason for this may be because unless it's a huge gnaw, some animal bites are relatively painless, and unless you're paying careful attention, you might not know when you got bit, until it's too late. Overall, it's a very good idea to take precautions, and if you suspect any suspicious symptoms, contact your local physician as soon as possible.

By Euroxati — On Aug 22, 2014
Reading the article, I'm quite surprised that people can get rat-bite fever from pet rats. After all, considering how they're domesticated pets, shouldn't the chances of getting infected be lower?

It shows that sometimes, no matter how much we domesticate an animal, the fact is that they're still animals, and our attempts to domesticate them won't always be a success. However, one thing I wonder is how people get the disease in the first place, since rats carry rabies. In other words, shouldn't one contract rabies and not rat bite disease? Just a thought.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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