Dangerous Virus Spreads from Pet Rats to Humans for the First Time in the U.S.

Infectious disease experts are warning rat owners to always wash their hands.

The rodent-born Seoul virus is found worldwide, but until recently, there have been no cases in the United States and Canada. The virus is similar to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and causes hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. It is spread from rats (Rattus norvegicus) to humans, and recent research shows evidence it's becoming more common in North America.

Doctors have identified at least 24 cases of acute Seoul virus in people who recently handled pet rats.

pet rat

Out of those 24 people, eight become ill and three were hospitalized with serious symptoms. They recovered, and there are so far no reported deaths due to this potentially deadly virus. But potentially infected rats were distributed in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin, according to investigations

Seoul virus is especially dangerous due to the fact infected rodents show no symptoms. The virus doesn't harm the rats, but it spreads quickly through the population. When one infected rat is introduced to a population, the virus is transmitted without warning.

pet rats

One of the first cases of the virus on U.S soil was a rat breeder in Wisconsin. The breeder sold rats as pets and had up to 100 Norway rats in his home at one time. What started as a fever eventually turned into abdominal pain, nausea, possible liver and kidney failure, and a low white blood cell count. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed Seoul virus in December 2016 and is warning rat breeders and pet owners to be especially diligent about proper handling and hygiene.

The Seoul virus infection is spread through rat saliva, urine, feces, and aerosolization from contaminated bedding and nesting materials. Rat owners should regularly disinfect rat cages with a pet-safe disinfectant. The CDC and state health departments warn people who are frequently around pet rodents to take mild flu-like symptoms seriously. The virus starts by slowly wreaking havoc on the body's organs. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports about 5% of worldwide cases are fatal.

Do you own a pet rat? Let us know in the comments below. 

WATCH NOW: These Rats Take Care of Kittens