04/03/2005. The Rat Festival.
Neema Frederic  /  Gamma Press
Lin Lipinski looks down at her semi-hairless rat that she carries in a pouch around her neck at the Rat Festival in San Mateo, Calif., on April 3.
updated 5/26/2005 6:14:39 PM ET 2005-05-26T22:14:39

This week a man whisked his 11 pet gerbils to a local animal shelter after hearing reports that a virus from a hamster killed three transplant patients.

Never mind that gerbils have not been known to carry the virus.

“We’re getting calls about a number of these small rodent animals,” said Dr. E.J Finocchio, director of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s an emotional reaction, and not the correct time to make these kinds of decisions.”

The virus blamed in the recent deaths of three New England organ recipients isn’t the first time cute little animals have passed nasty germs along to people.

Just a few weeks ago, federal health officials warned that such pets, including hamsters, mice and rats, can transmit a dangerous, drug-resistant form of salmonella. People in 10 states got sick, including children who were hospitalized.

Also a danger are turtles called red-eared sliders, and pet prairie dogs, which two years ago infected dozens of Midwesterners with monkeypox, a disease previously seen only in African rainforests. The outbreak was blamed on a Gambian rat from Ghana that infected prairie dogs at an exotic pet dealer in Illinois.

Recent rodent virus is rare
One reason there’s been so much news about pet rodent diseases is that there are better methods of detecting the viruses they carry, said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus that caused the transplant deaths, LCMV, is uncommon and rarely fatal to humans. Health officials say the organ donor caught the germ from a pet hamster, and it was transmitted to the organ recipients whose weakened immune systems put them at higher risk.

“These animals are kept in houses, they’re brought out of their natural habitats, and they’re defecating and urinating in a very small place,” Finocchio said. “People have to be careful when they take care of these animals.”

'Take the proper precautions'
But most people shouldn’t fear getting sick from pocket pets, health officials say, as long as they handle them properly.

“We would not encourage people to turn their pets in,” said Daigle of the CDC. “If you take the proper precautions it’s not an issue.”

Parents should make sure children don’t kiss their pets — a habit that might be hard to break but is an easy way to get salmonella and other nasty germs, health officials say. Pets should also be kept away from people food.

Pet owners should wear gloves when cleaning up after the family hamster or guinea pig, and young children should never clean cages, health experts say. Damp paper towels should be used for cleanup to make sure animal waste doesn’t dry and turn into dust that can be inhaled.

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Handwashing is key
Most of all, people should wash their hands after playing with an animal.

“Handwashing is the way to prevent the spread, at least in most cases,” said Dr. Nina Marano, associate director for veterinary medicine and public health at the National Center for Infectious Diseases.

However, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems might want to stay away from pocket pets altogether. LCMV can cause miscarriages and neurological illness in infants.

People who are worried about getting sick from pets should just avoid them, said Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.

But in general, she said, “Pet owners that have these animals should not be terrified that they need to get rid of their hamster or rat or other small animal.”

As for that man who gave away his 11 gerbils — he came back later to get them when he learned gerbils aren’t known to carry the rodent virus.

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