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Child dies from infected rat; family sues Petco



SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A San Diego family is suing Petco after the death of their 10-year-old son from a bacterial infection they say he contracted from his pet rat.

Attorney John Gomez told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his firm filed the lawsuit Monday in San Diego County seeking an unspecified amount for the suffering endured by the Pankey family, whose son, , died June 12, 2013, hours after he was rushed to the hospital with severe stomach pains.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that the cause of death was streptobacillus moniliformis infection, commonly known as rat-bite fever, after exposure to an infected rat.

The retailer in a statement expressed its condolences.

"We are deeply saddened by the Pankey family's tragic loss," Petco said in a statement. "The health and safety of people and pets is always a top priority, and we take the family's concerns very seriously."

The boy's grandmother purchased the male rat, which Aidan named Alex, because her only grandson wanted a mate for his female pet rat, Gomez said. The boy took the rat home May 27, 2012, and woke up the night of June 11 in severe pain with a fever and stomach problems. He was pale, lethargic and could barely walk, according to the lawsuit. He died at 1:09 a.m. the next day.

"He was a bright, energetic, friendly, happy kid who actually had a prior rat, who was a female, and he had this idea in his young head of having his female rat get married," Gomez said.

The lawsuit was not filed until now because attorneys were awaiting the lab results from the federal Centers for Disease Control, which tested the rat to confirm it was infected, Gomez said. The agency could not immediately confirm the results Tuesday.

Gomez said the Pankey family was not giving interviews, but they are devastated by the death of their only son and want to raise awareness among parents.

"It's a means to ensure this doesn't happen again," Gomez said of the lawsuit. "Apparently there was some breakdown in procedures. They want tighter controls."

According to the lawsuit, the rat appeared safe. But the lawsuit says Petco should have known about the rodent's health and did not adequately test for the disease. It also says that negligence led to the boy's death, which has caused his parents, Andrew Pankey and Vanessa Sauer, emotional and economic hardship, and that the retailer did not post adequate warnings about the potential risks, especially for children.

Petco Animal Supplies Inc. said it is "in the process of investigating these claims and will respond appropriately when we have more information."

According to the CDC, people can contract rat-bite fever from bites or scratches from infected rodents, such as rats, mice and gerbils, or even just by handling an animal with the disease without a bite or scratch. It can also be contracted by consuming food or drink contaminated with the bacteria. It is not spread from person to person.

Antibiotics, such as penicillin, are highly effective at treating rat-bite fever, and it is rarely fatal, according to the CDC.

The CDC says those at higher risk of contracting the illness are people with pet rats or who work with rats in laboratories or pet stores, or live in rat-infested buildings. The agency recommends that people who handle rats or clean their cages wear protective gloves, wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their mouths with their hands after being in contact with rodents.

Petco also mentions preventative measures for rat-bite fever in information it posts online and provides in stores. The company warns that all rats are potential carriers and that pregnant women, children under the age of five and people with weakened immune systems should contact their doctor before buying a rat and "should consider not having a rat as a pet."

Only about 200 cases of rat-bite fever had been documented in the United States as of 2004, according to the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. Scientists believe the disease may be underdiagnosed because it is hard to detect and responds to commonly used antibiotics. But the number of cases, they say, may be increasing, especially among children, with the growing popularity of rats as pets.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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patches0047 February 27 2014 at 3:39 PM

I first of all would never let my children have any kind of exotic or weird pet,only dog,cat or others are dangerous and some times cause diseases,for kids don't always think to wash their hands after touching those disease ridden animals? , that what wrong with parents today,crazy I personally think? god bless that poor sweet boy,may he rest in peace,and pray for parents,and crazy grandmother.

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MICHELLE February 26 2014 at 7:07 AM

My condolences to the family. The lawsuit could be tough, though, because the family will have to prove that the infection was not caused by the condition of their home and/or the female rat or possibly even some other source outside the home, perhaps a friend's rat or a rat the boy encountered outside somewhere between home and school or anywhere else he might have gone in that month between the purchase of the male rat and the boy's becoming ill. There are too many unknown factors between point A, introduction of male rat from Petco, to point B, illness and death of the child.

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hpycmpr155 February 26 2014 at 6:38 AM

Some animals just should NOT be pets....rats and snakes come to mind.

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Sojourner February 26 2014 at 6:37 AM

My heart goes out to the family, especially the grandmother who thought she was only trying to make her grandson happy. She must be tormented by the thought that her good intentions may have turned deadly for her grandchild. I would be absolutely devastated. So tragic.

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Noksutau February 26 2014 at 6:32 AM

Sad, very sad.

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Carol Mills February 26 2014 at 5:48 AM

My heart aches for the bereaved parents. Only those who have lost a child can imagine their pain. Now, can we stop anthropomorphizing animals in this country? Can we stop "aw-ing" over cute photos of dogs licking the baby's face? Do you know what else that dog has been licking? Please, let us wake up to the fact that there are deadly organisms on this planet and medical science has no cure for some infections. A society that bans peanuts from schools can surely be made aware of such hazards.

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Linda February 26 2014 at 5:46 AM

Maybe we should STOP selling these CRITtERS if they have the chance of being carriers of a deadly disease like this? It is all about the MONEY these companies can make...like they give two craps about our health when they can make a buck for their store! I am horrified to read this knowing that my oldest who is now 35 had a pet rat as a kid....I thought it was a nasty thing. But, he would let it crawl all over him and even let that thing check his mouth out! I am glad he never contracted that disease. I just think we sell critters for profit more than anything and I do not believe for one moment that Petco gives a rats behind ( No pun intended) about how safe their animals are. It is all about PROFIT.

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nafisapa February 26 2014 at 5:42 AM

WOW!!!! Some of you people are quite ruthless and mean. Here is a family who lost their child--that is devastating! Yet some of you say "serves them right"!!??? What kind of a low class, loser would say such a thing!? In his childhood, playful mind he figuratively thought his female rat needed a husband :) such a cute, innocent thought! Just because they got a male rat doesn't mean they would reproduce. Perhaps the rat was neutered. In any event that is not the point here...the point is that this rat which by the way they are intelligent and gentle creatures, most likely carried this bacteria. Petco has a responsibility to test their animals before putting it up for sale. So to say the family should've taken the rat to a vet for clearance is secondary. Primary responsibility was for Petco. My only legal question is determining the bacteria was transmitted by the male and not the female. In the article it says autopsy of male rate was positive for bacteria. But what the female had it first and transmitted to the male? Anyway I guess in my next life I could aim to become an attorney. At the end of all this a 10 yo boy died after the grandma with good intentions, purchased this male rat. RIP & prayers to family :(***

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DAVID McGEE February 26 2014 at 5:38 AM

SO SORRY FOR THE BOYS AND HIS PARENTS--PETS SHOULD BE TESTED AND FREE OF DISEASE BEFOR OFFERED FOR SALE-- AFTER HAVING SO MANY PETS DIE I CAN NOT TAKE CARE OF A PET---LUCKY THAT I HAVE A SON WHO HELPS ME DAY BY DAY TO LIVE AS BEST AS I CAN---DAVID

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prescottvalley6 February 26 2014 at 5:11 AM

I feel so sorry for this family and their little boy... This could have happened to anyone. These people only did what they thought would make their boy happy. Quit blaming them they are not kid killers, They loved him. also this pet store has it's own vets that should be making sure the animals are healthy.
Prayers for the family

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