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Do Rats in Florida Carry Rabies?

When you hear “rabies,” you might think of wild animals like raccoons, bats, and foxes. But what about those smaller, often unwelcome guests - rats? It might come as a surprise, but the chances of encountering a rabid rat or other small rodents like squirrels and hamsters are quite slim.

This article delves into the realities of rabies in smaller rodents. We compare their risk levels to larger animals and discuss how understanding these differences is crucial for effective pest management.

Key Takeaways

  • Small rodents like rats have a much lower risk of carrying rabies than larger wildlife such as raccoons and foxes.
  • Rabies symptoms in rodents include unusual behavior and paralysis, although rodent-to-human transmission is rare.
  • Controlling rodent populations through pest control is crucial for managing rabies and preventing diseases like Hantavirus and Leptospirosis.
  • After a rat bite or scratch, cleaning the wound and seeking medical advice is recommended, even with the low risk of rabies in rats.

Understanding Rabies in Rats and Small Rodents

Are Rats Carriers of Rabies? 

Expert Insight 

Rats as a whole are extremely rare to carry any form of rabies and they are not known to transmit rabies to humans. While they do often carry many other diseases we would want to be aware that this is not a worry when it comes to dealing with rats. The CDC ran a study in 1996 in areas where raccoon rabies was high among animals for 6 years, 371 cases were in the rodent family of which 93% was accounted for in woodchucks or groundhogs.

David Smith, Native Pest Specialty Tech and Branch Manager

Rabies might be a concern with wildlife, but the picture is quite different regarding urban rats and small rodents. Here's what you should know:

  • Rat Species and Rabies Risk: The common urban rat species like Rattus norvegicus (brown rat) and Rattus rattus (black rat) are not often found to be carriers of the rabies virus. This fact is crucial for city dwellers who might be worried about the presence of these animals.

Similarly, other small rodents we might encounter more frequently, like mice, squirrels, gerbils, or guinea pigs, are also less likely to carry rabies. In fact, between 1995 and 2010, only 710 rodent-related rabies cases were reported! That’s less than 50 cases per year in the whole United States. 

What are the Symptoms of Rabies? How Does it Spread?

Even though rabies is rare in rats, it's helpful to recognize the signs. The symptoms of rabies can vary across different animals, including rodents. Let's explore the indicators of a potentially rabid rodent and understand how the virus can be transmitted:

  • Unusual Rodent Behavior: If an ordinarily skittish rodent starts showing aggression or, conversely, becomes oddly tame, take note. These behavioral anomalies could be signs of rabies.
  • Physical Indicators: Look out for more than just behavior changes. Symptoms like paralysis, especially in the back legs, or an uncharacteristically drooling rodent are red flags.

As for how rabies is spread - generally speaking, while the classic scenario is transmission through animal bites, rabies can be passed on if an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with another animal's open wound or mucous membranes. However, rabies is not spread through feces, blood, or urine.

What's the Risk of Rabies in Rodents vs. Larger Animals?

The risk of rabies isn’t the same across all animal species. It's essential to understand how this risk varies between rodents and larger animals, especially for pet owners:

  • Rodents - Lower Rabies Risk: While rare, rodents like rats, mice, chipmunks, and squirrels can contract rabies. However, their rabies risk is much lower than larger wildlife. This is reassuring for homeowners concerned about small rodents.
  • Larger Wildlife - More Common Carriers of Rabies: In contrast, larger animals such as raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and bats (CDC) are more frequently infected with rabies. They serve as natural hosts for the virus and contribute significantly to its spread in the wild.

For pet owners, this means being vigilant about small and large animal encounters. Pets can come across various large and small wildlife, increasing their risk of exposure to rabies. Therefore, regular rabies vaccinations are essential for pets, providing protection regardless of the size of the wildlife they may encounter.

How Common is Rabies in Rats? 

So rabies transmission is low in rats -  but how low? Let's dive into the stats:

  • Statistically, the presence of the rabies virus in rat populations is quite rare. In fact, of 87,895 reported cases of rabies in 2020, only 38 were related to rodents. And those were all groundhogs! Zero rats were implicated.

This low prevalence is essential to note. So, while staying vigilant is always good, the likelihood of encountering a rat with rabies is not a significant cause for alarm.

Additionally, while rabies is a well-known concern in rodents, there are several other diseases to keep on the radar. These illnesses may trick you into believing you have a rabies situation on hand:

  • Hantavirus: Can cause fever and tiredness in rats, which might look like the early signs of rabies.
  • Leptospirosis: Its early symptoms, like fever and aching muscles, resemble rabies.
  • Tularemia: This can cause fever and swollen glands, making it easy to confuse with early rabies.
  • Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis: The way it affects the brain and nerves can be mistaken for rabies.

These diseases often present symptoms similar to rabies, making it easy to confuse them. However, understanding their distinct signs is crucial for accurate identification and response.

How Do You Manage Rat-Related Rabies Risks?

Expert Insight 

Even though it is extremely rare to encounter a rabid rat, you would want to handle it similarly to if you were to encounter any animal that possibly has rabies. All mammals including humans can be affected by rabies and unfortunately there are no 100% signs of infection until the animal is dead and the brain stem can be examined. That being said, if you encounter any wild animal that is acting abnormally in any way (walking in circles, highly aggressive, timid, not shy of humans) avoid the animal and you can report it to your local animal control. If you find a dead animal do not handle it with your bare hands, use gloves or a plastic bag as rabies is transmitted by saliva and you do not want to risk being exposed to it.

David Smith, Native Pest Specialty Tech and Branch Manager

Prevention is vital when it comes to rats and rabies (or general rodent-related issues). Let's explore how pest control and animal management play a crucial role:

  • Effective Pest Control: Keeping rat populations under control is the first defense against rabies risks. This involves sealing home entry points, maintaining clean environments to deter rodents, and consulting professional pest control services when needed.
  • What to Do After a Bite or Scratch: If you do get bitten or scratched by a rat, don't panic. First, clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Then, it's essential to consult a healthcare provider or the local health department for further advice. 
  • Animal Management Strategies: Animal control is vital in managing wildlife and maintaining public health in urban and suburban settings. Reporting potential rabid animals to local animal control can help prevent the spread of rabies and other diseases.

Whether related to rabies or not, these prevention tips will help keep you, your family, and your pets safe from rodents that spread disease.