Different Ways Treat a Rat Bite or Scratch

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When it comes to rat bites, the best course of action is to never let yourself be bitten. Stay safe when a rat comes near you, and don't approach a wild rat. While they are generally more afraid of you than you are of them, you can never be sure how a wild animal will act.

Around a pet rat, be sure the animal is secured and not roaming free. Rats will bite or scratch if frightened or handled, so leave them alone.

If you're accidentally bitten by a rat, you should take it seriously and seek treatment.

This article explains the possible infections that can occur from a rat bite and how to treat the wound or complications that might occur.

how to treat a rat bite

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

First Aid for Rat Bite or Scratch

There are several steps that you can and should take after a rat bite:

  1. If you're not the victim, practice universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment, if available, when assisting the person who has been bitten.
  2. Control the bleeding and clean the wound with soap and warm water. Clean inside the wound. Then be sure to rinse away all the soap, or it will cause irritation later.
  3. Cover the wound with a clean, dry dressing. You can put antibiotic ointment on the wound before covering it.
  4. If the injury is on a finger, remove all rings from the injured finger in case it swells.
  5. Try to trap the rodent after the bite. This way, doctors can examine it later to determine if the animal has an infection.

Signs of Infection

Rat bites often lead to infection. If the wound shows any of these signs in the hours and days after a bite, it may be infected:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Heat
  • Pus drainage

When to See Your Doctor

Always consult your doctor after a rat bite. You may need a tetanus immunization or you may need stitches.

Wounds on the face or hands are of special concern due to the risk of scarring or loss of function and should always be evaluated by a doctor.

Types of Infections

The main concern with rat bites is that you will develop a specific type of bacterial infection known as rat-bite fever (RBF). Humans can contract this illness if an infected rat bites or scratches them.

Petting or handling an infected animal can transmit the bacteria, as well. People can also get RBF by eating food or drinking water contaminated by rat feces.

The two bacteria responsible for rat-bite fever are: 

  • Streptobacillus moniliformis or S. moniliformis (most common in the United States)
  • Spirillum minus or S. minus (most common in Asia)

The signs and symptoms of infection from each bacteria are slightly different. The good news is that rat-bite fever can be effectively treated with an antibiotic. If left untreated, though, rat-bite fever can be potentially fatal.

Streptobacillus Rat Bite Fever

Watch for the following symptoms and seek medical attention right away if you experience any of them:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the back and joints
  • Rash on the hands and feet, usually accompanied by one or more swollen joints

Symptoms of rat-bite fever usually appear three to 10 days after the exposure or bite but may occur up to three weeks later. A rash usually appears two to four days after the fever.

Just because the bite or scratch seems to be getting better, don't assume you're in the clear. The infection can still be in your body. In fact, you may not have a fever until after the wound is healed.

Complications from S. moniliformis infections include the formation of pockets of infected fluid, called abscesses, in your belly or other parts of the body. The infection can also lead to hepatitis in the liver, meningitis, pneumonia, and a kidney disorder known as nephritis.

Approximately 10% of people who develop S. moniliformis die of the infection.

Spirillum Rat Bite Fever

Symptoms of S. minus RBF usually come on one to three weeks after being exposed to an infected rodent. They are more variable than streptobacillus RBF, but may include:

  • Fever, which may go away and come back
  • Irritation and a possible ulcer at the bite wound
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swelling around the wound site
  • A purple or reddish rash

Without treatment, S. minus RBF can be fatal as the infection spreads to the heart, brain, lungs, or other internal organs.

Rabies Risk Minimal

Rats are not a major source of rabies infection. While some people do worry about it, it's very rare for humans to contract rabies from any rodent. Bat bites are the most common source of rabies. Racoons, skunks, and foxes can also transmit the disease.

Haverhill Fever

Another form of rat-bite fever is Haverhill fever. You can contract this type of infection if you consume contaminated food or fluids. Symptoms may include severe vomiting and a sore throat.

Treatment

Rat-bite fever should always be treated by a doctor. If untreated, rat-bite fever can cause serious complications that could lead to death. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, which usually include:

  • Amoxicillin 
  • Penicillin
  • Erythromycin
  • Doxycycline 

Patients with severe forms of rat-bite fever that affect the heart could get high-dose penicillin and may receive the antibiotics streptomycin or gentamicin.

Summary

Rat-bite fever is a serious infection. S. moniliformis bacteria found in American rats is associated with rash and flu-like symptoms. S. minus bacteria found in Asian rats may cause swollen lymph nodes and irritation around the wound. Both types of bacteria cause an infection that can be fatal if it’s not treated. 

Thankfully, the condition can be cured with antibiotics. Avoiding interaction with rats whenever possible is the best prevention, but if you do find yourself bitten, scratched, or even exposed to a rat, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of an infection.

A Word From Verywell

As the old saying goes, prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is especially true when it comes to rat bites.

Even domesticated rodents have an unpredictable nature and may bite you or may carry bacteria that could cause rat-bite fever. Take any wound you receive from a rat seriously and be sure to wash your hands carefully if you touch one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is rat-bite fever?

    Rat-bite fever is rare. However, cases may not always be identified since the bacteria are difficult to diagnose, and the condition often responds well to prescribed antibiotics. There are between 20,000 and 40,000 rat bites in the United States each year. The risk of rat-bite fever due to Streptobacillus moniliformis is thought to be about 10%.

  • Can you get rat-bite fever from a mouse?

    Yes, it's possible. Other rodents can carry the bacteria for rat-bite fever, including mice, squirrels, gerbils, and guinea pigs. If you are bitten by a mouse or other rodent, clean the wound and contact your doctor.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rat-bite fever.