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What Diseases Do Rats Carry? Pest-Control Experts Explain How to Keep Yourself Safe

Prevention logo Prevention 9/24/2021 Jake Smith
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Rats don’t just break into your food, gnaw at your stuff, and leave droppings everywhere—they also happen to be effective at spreading viruses to human beings through their droppings, urine, and parasites. Yuck!

When you find evidence of rats in or near your home (including scratches, droppings, or a bad odor), it’s best to treat the pests like a health hazard, according to Bobby Corrigan, Ph.D., an urban rodentologist based in New York City. “If you don’t want those germs or diseases, don’t let rats build up into large numbers around your property,” he says.

There are more than 35 rodent-borne diseases worldwide, including salmonella, tularemia, and plague. Here’s how to keep yourself safe, according to experts. © Marcin Bulinski / EyeEm - Getty Images There are more than 35 rodent-borne diseases worldwide, including salmonella, tularemia, and plague. Here’s how to keep yourself safe, according to experts.

So, which rat-borne diseases do you need to worry about? And how can you keep the pests from contaminating your home? Here’s what the experts want you to know.

What diseases do rats carry?

When rats and mice enter your home, they bring a number of pathogens along with them. Worldwide, rodents are known to spread over 35 diseases to humans, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); rats are responsible for many of them.

Rats transmit diseases in two ways: directly and indirectly. Direct transmission occurs when humans accidentally touch infected urine, droppings, or rodents. These are the most common rat-borne diseases transmitted directly by the rodents, per the CDC:

  • Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a severe respiratory disease causing flu-like symptoms, dizziness, and stomach problems at first, then extreme shortness of breath
  • Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease causing flu-like symptoms, plus jaundice and red eyes
  • Plague, a disease causing rapid-onset fever, chills, and weakness, plus necrotic tissue, swollen lymph nodes, or pneumonia, depending on the strain
  • Rat-bite fever, a disease causing fever, vomiting, rash, headache, and body pain
  • Salmonellosis, a bacterial infection causing diarrhea
  • Tularemia, an illness causing fever and sometimes ulcers, inflammation, and chest pain

Indirect transmission happens when a rat’s parasites (like ticks and mosquitoes) also bite and infect humans; the diseases they can transmit include babesiosis, Lyme disease, and West Nile. Rats do not transmit rabies, Corrigan notes.

“The main diseases of concern with rats are leptospirosis and salmonellosis,” explains Ian Williams, board-certified entomologist and technical services manager at Rollins, Inc. in Atlanta, because they are so common. Plague is exceedingly rare, but is a bit more common in the Western United States than elsewhere in the country.

How do rats spread disease?

Rats pick up viruses in the same way human beings do: with their fingers and mouths. “They’re hanging out in alleys, by garbage cans, and in sewers,” Corrigan explains. “All those germs get picked up on their feet, and they eat them.” (Luckily for us, we can wash our hands.)

From the moment they enter a home, rats are almost “constantly urinating and defecating,” Corrigan says, leaving viruses wherever they go—including on your surfaces, around your basement, and in your pantry. Unsuspecting people then touch, inhale, and sometimes consume that urine and feces, allowing those germs into their bodies.

“Rats can also bring ectoparasites, like fleas, ticks and mites, into your home where they can affect humans and pets,” Williams says, “causing nuisance and sometimes spreading disease.” As mentioned above, ticks, flies, and fleas can each infect humans after leaving their rat hosts behind, indirectly spreading illnesses to human hosts.

How can you keep rats out of your home?

Preventing rat-borne disease is as simple as keeping rats out of your space—and that’s simpler than you might think. “Prevention is key,” Williams explains, so move wood piles away from your home, clear dense vegetation from your home’s foundation, and eliminate any food and water sources in your yard, including birdseed. And seal any gaps at least a half an inch wide under exterior doors, in your foundation, and around your roof, he advises.

You should also properly dispose of your trash. Seal any garbage inside a bag, then make sure your bin’s lid is firmly in place, Corrigan recommends. It’s also worthwhile to mist your can with a 10% bleach solution every once in a while; this will ensure that rats and mice smell bleach instead of garbage, keeping them away from your home.

If you’re trying to manage a rat infestation, don’t try to do it yourself—both experts stress that it’s best to reach out to a pest management professional, who can help you keep the rodents out for good.

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