For many of our dogs, it’s a natural instinct to hunt and chase prey—especially terriers bred for their rat-catching abilities! But what happens if your dog is bitten by a rat during the encounter? What might seem like a fairly harmless injury can mean more serious consequences for the health of your dog. This is why it’s important to seek professional veterinary advice after any known contact with a rat.
In many cases, infection is the most likely complication after a rat bite. However, rats can also carry some seriously nasty diseases that may infect our beloved pups. In this article, we discuss the possible complications of rat bites in dogs, how they are treated, and what to expect or look out for.
Can a Dog Get Sick From a Rat Bite?
Unfortunately, dogs can get sick from rat bites. There are a number of potential consequences if your dog has been bitten by a rat. This is why it’s always best to contact a veterinarian as soon as possible to discuss the potential risks and make sure your dog receives appropriate treatment. Some dogs will interact with rats with no major problems; however, it can be difficult to predict which of them will be unlucky and contract something nasty.
One of the most common risks if your dog is bitten by a rat, is the chance of infection developing—especially if the bite is deep. All animals carry bacteria within their mouths and bite wounds should be cleaned and disinfected by a veterinary professional as soon as possible. A course of antibiotics will usually be prescribed for your dog. Infected wounds tend to be painful, red, swollen, and often discharge pus. Your dog may also be quieter than usual, warm to the touch (due to a fever), lethargic, and less interested in their food. If left untreated, an infection can spread to the bloodstream causing a severe illness known as sepsis.
Leptospirosis or ‘Lepto’ is an infectious disease caused by Leptospira bacteria that is transmitted from carrier animals. Rats and other rodents, as well as farm animals like cows, are the major carriers of Leptospirosis. It is usually spread to dogs via contact with urine from an infected animal, however, a bite from an infected rat, drinking from contaminated waterways, and contact with an infected animal may also lead to infection. Leptospirosis is more prevalent in warm, tropical, high-rainfall areas but exists all over the world.
The signs of leptospirosis can vary as there are many different strains but they can be extremely serious and even deadly. It is also an important “zoonotic” disease (transmissible from animals to humans) as it can cause severe illness in people.
In dogs, leptospirosis may cause severe damage to the liver and kidneys, as well as bleeding tendencies, inflammation, muscle pain, and respiratory disease.
Urgent diagnosis and treatment are essential, so if your dog is showing any of these signs seek veterinary attention immediately. There are vaccinations available for dogs against leptospirosis so it’s important to make sure your dog is up to date with their booster shots to help prevent infection.
Rat bite fever
It is estimated that 50–100% of rats carry the bacteria Streptobacillus moniliformis which causes the disease known as rat bite fever (RBF). RBF is transmitted through bite and scratch wounds from an infected rat, though may also occur after close contact with its droppings or urine. Most dogs are considered carriers of the disease and may not show any signs of illness, though there have been rare cases where dogs have become sick. There is also a reported case of a human contracting RBF after being bitten by a dog known to eat rats.
What if My Dog Ate a Rat?
Dogs that hunt and chase rats are also likely to kill and eat them. Unfortunately, that means there are some additional consequences to consider if your dog ate a rat…
If your dog ate a rat you need to consider the possibility that the rat could have been poisoned, especially if the rat was already dead or your dog isn’t usually quick enough to catch a rat. If you know there was rat or mouse poison on your property, make sure you contact your veterinarian immediately and let them know the type and brand of poison. Rat and mouse poison is just as deadly for dogs and cats and requires urgent veterinary intervention if eaten.
Dogs that hunt and eat rats also risk contracting intestinal worms such as roundworms and tapeworms. Intestinal worms steal valuable nutrients from your dog’s gut and can cause illnesses such as weight loss, lethargy, diarrhea, and vomiting. If your dog is a known hunter, your vet will be able to recommend suitable worming treatment and may recommend that they are wormed more frequently to prevent worm infestation. Regular fecal testing can also be performed to screen and check your dog for the presence of intestinal worms.
Also known as rabbit fever, Tularemia is a bacterial disease spread by rabbits and rodents that can infect dogs who kill or eat infected animals. It can also be spread by tick or flea bites from these animals. Luckily for dogs, they seem to be quite resistant to the bacteria Francisella tularensis that causes Tularemia, and cases tend to be rare and self-resolving. Signs may include reduced appetite, lethargy, and a mild fever. In rare cases, conjunctivitis, enlarged lymph nodes (glands), and the formation of abscesses (pockets of infection) have also been reported. Though rare, this is an important disease to be aware of as it is easily transmittable to humans and your veterinarian must report any suspected cases to the relevant public health authority.
Do Rats Carry Rabies?
The good news is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that rats and rodents are very rarely found to be infected with the rabies virus in the US. The major carriers for rabies are skunks, raccoons, and foxes, however, any encounter with a wild animal is best reported to your veterinarian immediately, as rabies is deadly in both dogs and humans. Though a rat bite is an extremely low rabies risk, it’s still essential that your dog is kept up to date with rabies vaccinations for their health and safety, as well as that of your family.
Can a Rat Bite Kill a Dog?
Unfortunately, rats are known to carry diseases that can kill a dog if they become infected after the encounter. The most common of these is leptospirosis which can cause mild to severe disease in dogs and even death. Your dog can be vaccinated against leptospirosis to help protect them.
What Do You Do if Your Dog Gets Bitten by a Rat?
1. Prevent access
Most commonly, encounters with rats will occur outside the house, so bring your pets inside to stop them from chasing or investigating. If the rat was encountered indoors, make sure none of your pets can access the rat or its environment (areas that might contain droppings or urine). This might mean confining them to a separate room in the house while you clean up. Always wear gloves to carefully clean up and dispose of any mess.
2. Gather information
This will help your vet identify some of the possible risks. Did you see a rat bite your dog? Was your dog chasing or playing with a rat? Was the rat chewed up or swallowed? Where did the incident take place and what time? Do you know if there is rat bait or poison used on the property? If so, what type? Bring any packaging with you to the vet. The more information you can provide, the better.
3. Call your vet
When it comes to rat bites it’s better to be safe than sorry. Give your vet all the information you’ve collected, and they will be able to advise you on the appropriate course of action. In most cases, your vet will want to examine your dog at the clinic to treat the wound correctly.
How Do You Treat a Rat Bite on a Dog?
Your veterinarian will examine your dog and thoroughly clean and disinfect the rat bite to help prevent infection. In most cases, they will also prescribe pain relief and a course of antibiotics as bite wounds from any animal are “dirty” due to the high bacterial load that lives within the mouth.
Your vet will also check your dog’s vaccination status and determine their risk for infectious diseases such as leptospirosis. From here your vet may recommend monitoring your dog closely for any signs of illness, or they may consider performing diagnostic tests including bloodwork, urine examination, and leptospirosis testing if they are concerned there is a high risk of exposure. Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics as well as supportive care such as placing your dog on an IV drip to try and stabilize and reverse the effects on the body.
If your dog has recently eaten a dead rat and there is a possibility it was poisoned with rat bait, your vet may make them vomit to reduce the amount of poison absorbed. Never attempt to make your dog vomit at home as there can be unexpected consequences to forcing vomiting, including your dog choking and inhaling vomit.
There are a number of different rat and mouse poisons each with different toxic effects. Treatment will depend on which toxin was eaten, as well as the amount and its effect on your dog. Vitamin K is an effective antidote for rat poisons that cause internal bleeding (anti-coagulant).
Will My Dog Be Ok if He Has Been Bitten by a Rat?
If your dog is vaccinated against leptospirosis the prognosis after a rat bite is good and the major risk is infection from the bite wound.
For unvaccinated animals, there is a higher risk of contracting leptospirosis, which can cause mild to severe disease and even death in dogs. Though urine from infected rats is the most common route of transmission, close contact or bite wounds may also result in Leptospirosis infection in dogs.
When dealing with a rat bite, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and contact your veterinarian immediately. Rat bites will often become infected and there is a risk of your dog contracting serious infectious diseases such as leptospirosis.
To reduce the risks of rat bites for your dog, make sure their vaccinations are kept up to date and consider their lifestyle at home and how you can limit access to rats and rodents. Walk your dog on a leash in rural areas and near waterways where rats and rodents tend to live. Secure rubbish bins and consider contacting pest control for advice if there is a rat problem at home.
Finally, take care when using rat poison – make sure it cannot be accessed by pets, and remember that poisoned rats are also a hazard if eaten by dogs and cats!
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