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Home News centre National Press Releases 2013 Press Releases ›  HPA issues guidance for pet rodent owners following recent cases of hantavirus

HPA issues guidance for pet rodent owners following recent cases of hantavirus

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

  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while tending to your pet rodent.
  • Keep rodent cages clean and remove soiled bedding often.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water (see link for good technique) immediately after handling your rodent or cleaning their cage or any other materials such as bedding, toys etc. Be especially careful to immediately clean your skin thoroughly if you get rodent urine directly on your skin.
  • Do not kiss pet rodents or hold them close to your face.
  • Cover cuts, scratches or sores with a waterproof plaster before handling animals and thoroughly clean and cover any cuts or abrasions received during handling the animal.
  • Keep your pet rodent out of rooms where food is prepared and eaten, and limit the parts of the house where it is allowed to roam freely.
  • Do not use kitchen sinks for washing cages or equipment. If you use a bathroom sink, shower or bathtub, it must be cleaned thoroughly with disinfectant afterwards.

Ends

Notes to editors

  1. All rodents, whether they are pets or live in the wild, can carry bacteria and viruses that cause infections in people. Rodent infections that can transmit to people include leptospirosis, hantavirus, rat bite fever and a type of meningitis caused by a virus called lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). Although rare, these infections may have serious consequences, and can be fatal.
  2. The full guidance can be found from the HPA website's Hantaviruses page.
  3. This guidance was developed in cooperation with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
  4. The Health Protection Agency is an independent UK organisation that was set up by the government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. In April 2013, the Health Protection Agency will become part of a new organisation called Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health. To find out more, visit our website: http://www.hpa.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @HPAuk or ‘Like’ us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HealthProtectionAgency [external link].
  5. For more information please contact the national HPA press office at Colindale on 0208 327 7901 or email colindale-pressoffice@hpa.org.uk. Out of hours the duty press officer can be contacted on 0208 200 4400.

Last reviewed: 1 March 2013