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Infected rat blamed for 10-year-old's death in lawsuit: Petco sued as negligent

An infected rat has been blamed in a lawsuit that alleges that bacteria from said infected rat caused the death of a 10-year-old San Diego, Calif., boy last year. The parents of Aidan Pankey allege that Petco, the national pet retailer where the rat was reportedly purchased, was negligent in allowing an animal infected with rat-bite fever bacteria to be sold, thereby causing their son's death.

The Associated Press reported (via Yahoo News) Feb. 25 that the family's attorney, John Gomez, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Pankey family in San Diego County Monday. The lawsuit contends that Petco, the company where the rat was allegedly bought as a pet for the Pankey's son, should have known about the rodent's health, did not adequately test for the disease, and did not post adequate warnings of the risk -- especially to children. Negligence on the part of the retailer ultimately led to the boy's death. Due to his untimely passing, his parents, Andrew Pankey and Vanessa Sauer, have suffered emotional and economic hardship.

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

Gomez said that Aidan Pankey's grandmother bought the pet rat for him on May 27, 2013, because he wanted a male rat as a mate for a female he already owned. Two weeks later, on June 11, he woke in the night with a fever, severe abdominal pain. He was pale, his movements lethargic -- to the point where he could barely walk, attests the lawsuit. He was rushed to the hospital where he died at 1:09 a.m. the next day.

The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages.

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

Although the San Diego County medical examiner's office ruled that Aidan Pankey's cause of death was streptobacillus moniliformis infection, commonly referred to as rat-bite fever, from exposure to an infected rat last summer, the lawsuit was slow in getting to the filing process due to waiting for confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

According to the CDC website, 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. Rat-bite fever, or RBF, is not spread from person to person.

Antibiotics, such as penicillin, are highly effective at treating rat-bite fever. Contraction of rat-bite fever is rarely fatal, according to the CDC, and it can be effectively treated with antibiotics, like penicillin. Left untreated, however, RBF can lead to infections in the lungs, heart, and brain. It can also cause abscesses in internal organs.

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. However, anyone exposed to the bacteria is subject to contracting rat-bite fever.

Rat-bite fever is specifically mentioned as an example of a potential infectious disease carried by the rats they sell. Petco warns of the potential for rats to be disease carriers on their website, stating that owners should "always wash your hands before and after handling your rat and/or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of diseases."

John Gomez said the Pankey family was not giving interviews, still devastated by the death of their only son. He noted that the family filed the Aidan Pankey lawsuit to help raise awareness among parents regarding the deadly disease.

"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.

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