How to Treat a Bite From a Wild or Domestic Rat
A Cute and Friendly Pet Rat
My Recent Rat Bite
The idea for this article was inspired by... you guessed it, a rat bite. I had been feeding a live rat to my female pastel ball python when my husband and cat walked into the room and both started talking to me at the same time. I was distracted, looked away, and the rat swung up from the tongs where I was dangling it and nipped my finger. Thankfully, the bite was shallow, but it still itched for three days afterwards.
Rat bites and the bacteria they impart to a wound can be very serious. I thought it might be a good idea to share how to properly treat one, as rat bites can be a somewhat common risk depending on a person's job or location. At the top of the list are occupations such as reptile or rodent breeder, pet store worker, lab researcher, sewage workers, and people in animal control.
Check Out These Teeth!
So How Does One Avoid a Rat Bite and What Kind of Diseases Do They Carry?
First off, the best way to avoid getting a nasty rat bite is to avoid rats! Wild rats are afraid of humans and will run away if given a chance. Stomping and clapping can help scare a rat away from you. If cornered, the rat will fear for its life and will bite and scratch, sometimes even urinating and defecating. They have an interesting self-defense unique to the species. Rats will chomp down hard, forcing the top two teeth down between the two longer bottom teeth, effectively enabling them to get a better grip and inflict a jagged, uneven wound, getting saliva and bacteria into the area.
Rats are carriers of seventy known diseases. Some hazardous diseases that rats can transmit to humans are Leptospirosis and Rat Bite Fever. Humans bitten by rodents are also susceptible to tetanus infections. Tetanus immunizations may be required for those who have not received them in recent years.
There is a common misconception that rats are a major source of rabies infection. In fact, humans get rabies from bats more often than any other species. Other species to commonly have rabies are raccoons, coyotes, skunks and foxes. Rabies transmission from rodents to humans is extremely rare. However, in some locales, it may be necessary to receive a rabies vaccination following a rodent bite.
To give you a real life example, while I was stationed in Iraq a fellow soldier had his fingernail partially nibbled off by a wild rat while he was sleeping. He was administered first aid immediately and sent to a hospital for a rabies shot. It was not a situation that he could afford to be lax on, as the bite could have negatively impacted his health and ability to perform missions in a war zone. Let's just say our company was a lot more vigilant about not leaving food out afterwards.
WARNING! Graphic Images of Wounds Ahead!
How to Treat the Wound
Rat bites need immediate treatment! Most rat bites are minor and can be successfully tended with first aid procedures only. However, if the wound will not stop bleeding, it may be necessary to go to a doctor where stitches will be required.
Supplies You Will Need:
- Soap and Water
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Triple Antibiotic or Bactoderm Cream
- Gauze or Bandaids
- Gauze Tape
- If the injury is on a finger, remove all rings before the area swells as that could cut off circulation.
- Rat bites can be deep and will likely bleed. Stop the flow of blood. Get a piece of gauze, or any other sterile, absorbent material and apply direct pressure to the wound.
- Once the bleeding is controlled, clean the injury with soap and warm water. Make sure to clean inside the wound and the area around it.
- Disinfect the cut. Pour a generous amount of hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol into the bite to remove any bacteria.
- Apply triple antibiotic or Bactoderm cream.
- Cover the wound with a clean, dry dressing such as a bandaid. If the bite area is large, use gauze secured with gauze tape or self adhesive bandages.
- Reapply antibiotic and replace the bandage once a day until the wound heals.
If the bite site will not stop bleeding, the wound may need stitches. Wounds on the face should also be seen by a doctor to evaluate the likelihood of scarring or loss of function. A person bit by a domestic rat is extremely unlikely to receive rabies. If you are unsure of the origin of the rat, for example, getting bitten in a warehouse or near a compost heap, assume the rat is wild and discuss with your doctor whether or not you need to get a series of rabies shots.
Never Leave a Live Rat Unobserved With a Pet Snake!
Recognizing Signs of Infection
Infection is rare if the wound is treated immediately and appropriately. However, it is best to closely monitor the injury for up to ten days, or as long as it takes for the bitten area to fully heal.
Some Signs of Infection to Look Out For:
- Weeping pus
If you observe any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately!
Have you ever been bitten by a rat or mouse?
How to Handle a Rat Safely
Sometimes rats cannot be avoided. Wild rats are attracted to human habitats for shelter and food. Do not leave leftovers lying around and put rat traps inside the home. Keep secure lids on garbage cans outside. Encouraging the presence of native predators such as hawks, owls, foxes and snakes will keep the rodent population down in your neighborhood.
However, I am a reptile breeder. I handle rats and mice on a regular basis. I feed frozen-thawed rodents to my snakes, but some will only eat live. Using protective gear will help prevent a painful rat bite. I use tongs to hold the rat's tail, which puts some distance between it's mouth and my hand. If the rat swings up to try to bite me, I simply use momentum to swing the rat back down and safely put him a tub.
Domestic rats can often be cute, curious, and enjoy being petted if handled frequently. Rodent breeders often become fond of their breeding stock, and will give them Cheerios or vegetables as a special treat. However, domestic rats can give just as good of a chomp as a wild one if you catch them in the wrong mood. The most common type of bite in a domestic rat is the "Whoops, I thought you were snacks." This can be prevented by washing the scent of food off your hands before handling. This bite is usually minor. Rats also explore your hands by sniffing and nibbling gently. Sometimes the rat can get too excited or suddenly startled, causing it to bite. Holding it securely with the body fully supported in a calm environment will help lower the likelihood of this reaction. The worst type of bite is the deep one a rat will give if they feel threatened. This can be from fear of their life (about to get fed to a snake), to stress (over crowded cage), to a mama rat protecting her babies.
Feeder, lab, and pet rats are truly unlikely to bite but understanding the reasons behind why rats bite can help prevent getting a wound in the first place. Stay safe, pay attention, and don't let yourself be distracted! (I blame the cat, ha ha.)
- Dr. Ronald Schindler, of the Eastern Shore Pet Hospital in Fairhope, Alabama.