1 March 2013
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has issued new guidance for owners of pet rodents following two recent UK cases of hantavirus which are described in a paper published in this week’s Eurosurveillance.
A number of infections may be acquired from pet rodents. Although rare, infection may follow a bite, contact with rodent urine or droppings, or through inhalation of infected animal waste including urine, faeces or dust from bedding materials.
Hantaviruses are passed from rodents to humans through inhalation of infected animal waste including urine, faeces and saliva (usually through a bite). They cannot be caught easily and prolonged exposure is required with infected rodents for the virus to be passed to people. Hantavirus infection does not pass from person-to-person.
The majority of hantavirus infections present as non specific, mild flu-like illness. Symptoms of more moderate disease are fever, headache, respiratory symptoms and kidney dysfunction. The most severe forms of disease have haemorrhagic (bleeding) manifestations.
One of two recent cases described in the Eurosurveillance paper was in a man from North Wales who kept pet rats. He presented with acute kidney injury which required hospitalisation. The other case was a rat breeder’s spouse who was admitted to hospital in 2011 with an undiagnosed viral illness resulting in renal impairment. Blood tests from both cases showed high levels of antibodies to the virus. Both cases recovered.
The rats have also been tested and showed the presence of the virus which was the same type of hantavirus (Seoul hantavirus) as that to which the two human cases had antibodies.
Study author Lisa Jameson, a research fellow at the HPA, said: “All animals whether they are pets or wild, can carry bacteria and viruses that cause infections in people. Hantavirus infections are rare in the UK although they can cause very serious infections in people who are exposed and are susceptible.
“Given these cases and the possibility of acquiring other infections from pet rodents, we have developed guidance for people who keep pet rodents on how they can reduce their risk of infection. Long term studies are also planned by the HPA and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) to more accurately estimate the prevalence of hantavirus among the rodent population in the UK.
“We want people to enjoy their pets and handling them, and as long as people follow the guidelines regarding hygiene and handling, then the risk of becoming unwell from an infection is very low.”
HPA advice on how to reduce the risks of infection from pet rodents
Last reviewed: 1 March 2013