I have ten years' experience as a reptile breeder. I handle rats and mice on a regular basis.
A Cute and Friendly Pet Rat
My Recent Rat Bite
The idea for this article was inspired by... you guessed it, a rat bite. I had been feeding a live rat to my female pastel ball python when my husband and cat walked into the room and both started talking to me at the same time. I was distracted, looked away, and the rat swung up from the tongs where I was dangling it and nipped my finger. Thankfully, the bite was shallow, but it still itched for three days afterwards.
Rat bites and the bacteria they impart to a wound can be very serious. I thought it might be a good idea to share how to properly treat one, as rat bites can be a somewhat common risk depending on a person's job or location. At the top of the list are occupations such as reptile or rodent breeder, pet store worker, lab researcher, sewage workers, and people in animal control.
Check Out These Teeth!
So How Does One Avoid a Rat Bite and What Kind of Diseases Do They Carry?
First off, the best way to avoid getting a nasty rat bite is to avoid rats! Wild rats are afraid of humans and will run away if given a chance. Stomping and clapping can help scare a rat away from you. If cornered, the rat will fear for its life and will bite and scratch, sometimes even urinating and defecating. They have an interesting self-defense unique to the species. Rats will chomp down hard, forcing the top two teeth down between the two longer bottom teeth, effectively enabling them to get a better grip and inflict a jagged, uneven wound, getting saliva and bacteria into the area.
Rats are carriers of seventy known diseases. Some hazardous diseases that rats can transmit to humans are Leptospirosis and Rat Bite Fever. Humans bitten by rodents are also susceptible to tetanus infections. Tetanus immunizations may be required for those who have not received them in recent years.
There is a common misconception that rats are a major source of rabies infection. In fact, humans get rabies from bats more often than any other species. Other species to commonly have rabies are raccoons, coyotes, skunks and foxes. Rabies transmission from rodents to humans is extremely rare. However, in some locales, it may be necessary to receive a rabies vaccination following a rodent bite.
To give you a real life example, while I was stationed in Iraq a fellow soldier had his fingernail partially nibbled off by a wild rat while he was sleeping. He was administered first aid immediately and sent to a hospital for a rabies shot. It was not a situation that he could afford to be lax on, as the bite could have negatively impacted his health and ability to perform missions in a war zone. Let's just say our company was a lot more vigilant about not leaving food out afterwards.
WARNING! Graphic Images of Wounds Ahead!
How to Treat the Wound
Rat bites need immediate treatment! Most rat bites are minor and can be successfully tended with first aid procedures only. However, if the wound will not stop bleeding, it may be necessary to go to a doctor where stitches will be required.
Supplies You Will Need:
- Soap and Water
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Triple Antibiotic or Bactoderm Cream
- Gauze or Bandaids
- Gauze Tape
- If the injury is on a finger, remove all rings before the area swells as that could cut off circulation.
- Rat bites can be deep and will likely bleed. Stop the flow of blood. Get a piece of gauze, or any other sterile, absorbent material and apply direct pressure to the wound.
- Once the bleeding is controlled, clean the injury with soap and warm water. Make sure to clean inside the wound and the area around it.
- Disinfect the cut. Pour a generous amount of hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol into the bite to remove any bacteria.
- Apply triple antibiotic or Bactoderm cream.
- Cover the wound with a clean, dry dressing such as a bandaid. If the bite area is large, use gauze secured with gauze tape or self adhesive bandages.
- Reapply antibiotic and replace the bandage once a day until the wound heals.
If the bite site will not stop bleeding, the wound may need stitches. Wounds on the face should also be seen by a doctor to evaluate the likelihood of scarring or loss of function. A person bit by a domestic rat is extremely unlikely to receive rabies. If you are unsure of the origin of the rat, for example, getting bitten in a warehouse or near a compost heap, assume the rat is wild and discuss with your doctor whether or not you need to get a series of rabies shots.
Never Leave a Live Rat Unobserved With a Pet Snake!
Recognizing Signs of Infection
Infection is rare if the wound is treated immediately and appropriately. However, it is best to closely monitor the injury for up to ten days, or as long as it takes for the bitten area to fully heal.
Some Signs of Infection to Look Out For:
- Weeping pus
If you observe any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately!
How to Handle a Rat Safely
Sometimes rats cannot be avoided. Wild rats are attracted to human habitats for shelter and food. Do not leave leftovers lying around and put rat traps inside the home. Keep secure lids on garbage cans outside. Encouraging the presence of native predators such as hawks, owls, foxes and snakes will keep the rodent population down in your neighborhood.
However, I am a reptile breeder. I handle rats and mice on a regular basis. I feed frozen-thawed rodents to my snakes, but some will only eat live. Using protective gear will help prevent a painful rat bite. I use tongs to hold the rat's tail, which puts some distance between it's mouth and my hand. If the rat swings up to try to bite me, I simply use momentum to swing the rat back down and safely put him a tub.
Domestic rats can often be cute, curious, and enjoy being petted if handled frequently. Rodent breeders often become fond of their breeding stock, and will give them Cheerios or vegetables as a special treat. However, domestic rats can give just as good of a chomp as a wild one if you catch them in the wrong mood. The most common type of bite in a domestic rat is the "Whoops, I thought you were snacks." This can be prevented by washing the scent of food off your hands before handling. This bite is usually minor. Rats also explore your hands by sniffing and nibbling gently. Sometimes the rat can get too excited or suddenly startled, causing it to bite. Holding it securely with the body fully supported in a calm environment will help lower the likelihood of this reaction. The worst type of bite is the deep one a rat will give if they feel threatened. This can be from fear of their life (about to get fed to a snake), to stress (over crowded cage), to a mama rat protecting her babies.
Feeder, lab, and pet rats are truly unlikely to bite but understanding the reasons behind why rats bite can help prevent getting a wound in the first place. Stay safe, pay attention, and don't let yourself be distracted! (I blame the cat, ha ha.)
- Dr. Ronald Schindler, of the Eastern Shore Pet Hospital in Fairhope, Alabama.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Dawn Hatch on September 02, 2018:
I have a couple pet (domestic) rats. Today, I reached into a cage to pick up my very tame male, and my pregnant female bit me good. It bled like CRAZY. Luckily, I keep all my bite first-aid supplies right there, and I was able to treat it immediately with alcohol.
She got me good... She never bit me before. Is it because she's pregnant?
first of all its elegal in the uk to feed live rats to snakes its cruel for the snake and rat. on July 03, 2018:
i was bit three days ago by a wild rat and I love rats as I have two pet wildies that I saved from tiny they are lovel as they see me and my husband as their mum and dad but the other rat was a wildie and my finger is swollen and part of my hand also, I was angry to see some people feed snakes with live rats its cruel as the rat and snake can both have bad outcomes and its illegal in the uk to feed live rats to snakes that's barbaric I am going on antibiotics for my painful finger and hand and pain killers!
You don't know me on April 13, 2018:
My friends pet rat bit me on the finger a lot of blood but her grandma put ice on it and put it under running water and disenfected it. And bandage and Some cream. Am I fine? It looks a little deep.
Anonymous on July 14, 2017:
My pet rat bite me on my earlobe. Should I check it with a doctor? I already tried cleaning it out and stopped the blood. Should I be worried?
. on May 14, 2015:
something bite me..but i think it was a rat ..how do i know if it is?
Power Ball Pythons (author) from Mobile, AL on April 26, 2015:
Jake, I would love to be in a pit of black mambas, properly equipped of course. ;) I remember the summer I worked at an alligator tourist attraction park and regularly walked into a gator pit to wrestle a gator. It was quite fun.
But seriously, it's the circle of life. Am I cruel for feeding my snakes? Wouldn't it be more cruel to not take care of my pets by not feeding them? Does that mean I'm not allowed to have certain types of pets because a stranger might feel butthurt? How odd.
Power Ball Pythons (author) from Mobile, AL on April 26, 2015:
Camryn, if you have to ask that then you should probably ask your parents. Really, a young teen could be trusted to take of two male or two female pet rats if they were responsible enough. Their cage would need to be cleaned twice a week and the rats would need daily water and food.
camryn on February 03, 2015:
how old should you be to get a pet rat
Jake on January 21, 2015:
Someone should throw you alive into a pit of black mambas
RATS on January 02, 2015:
Advantages of Frozen Rodents for Herps from http://www.petrats.org/herp_handout.aspx
1. The herp can’t be bitten or scratched (live rodents often injure and sometimes kill herps)
2. The owner can’t be bitten or scratched
3. Freezing kills parasites that can infest your herp
4. More economical
5. More convenient
6. Steady availability
7. The rodent can’t escape into your home
8. More sanitary; no urine or feces
9. Supplements can be inserted inside the rodent
10. Rodents sold frozen are killed humanely with carbon dioxide at the breeding facility and
shipped frozen, eliminating suffering
Training Reptiles to Eat Thawed Frozen Rodents
Almost all carnivorous reptiles can be trained to eat thawed frozen prey. Zoos keep hundreds of different species, and 99% of them eat thawed frozen prey.
One of the best ways to train a snake to eat is to use the tub feeding method. The snake is removed from its habitat and placed in a large rubber tub for feeding. There are several benefits of tub feeding:
1. The snake is conditioned to eat promptly
2. No chance of the snake ingesting substrate (which can be deadly)
3. Less biting—the snake does not see a human hand in habitat as prey
4. The decorations in the habitat are undisturbed
Reasons a Snake Might Refuse to Eat
1. Incorrect environmental conditions
2. Feeding too often
3. Incorrect food item size
4. Snake is about to shed
5. Snake is Sick
Feeding Thawed Frozen Rodents to Herptiles
Defrosting Frozen Rodents
For a snake, choose a rodent with a girth about equal to the widest mid-body girth of the snake. You can either soak the bagged frozen rodent in warm water, or leave in the refrigerator overnight to defrost, and then warm it up in warm water. Small pinkies can be quickly defrosted and warmed under warm running water.
Be sure the rodent is thoroughly defrosted and warmed to 90-100ºF. You do not want your herp eating a cold rodent, and warming a rodent also makes it smell more strongly, making it more attractive to your herp. This is especially important when training snakes to eat thawed frozen rodents, or for reluctant feeders.
The Tub Feeding Method
Feeding a snake in a plastic tub, not in its habitat, has several benefits: it conditions the snake to eat promptly, prevents the snake from eating substrate (which is dangerous), reduces the chance the snake will see a human hand in the habitat as prey, and leaves the habitat decorations undisturbed.
Do not attempt to pick up any snake with the scent of other animals on your hands or clothing, as this may entice the snake to strike in hunger. With clean hands, remove the snake from its habitat and place it in the feeding tub. Once the snake is in the feeding tub, offer the thawed warmed rodent.
Training Snakes to Eat Thawed Frozen Rodents
Be sure the snake is hungry. Most snakes should be fed twice a week for juveniles and once a week for adults. Offer a thawed, warmed rodent dangled from tongs—never hold it in your fingers! You may need to move the rodent back and forth to catch the snake’s attention. Be prepared for the strike and quickly release the rodent.
If the snake is not interested, pith (stick a pin or small nail into the brain at the back of the head) the dead rodent; this intensifies the scent and may encourage a reluctant feeder to eat.
You might need to offer three rodents 1/3 the size you would normally offer. First offer a stunned live rodent, followed immediately by one freshly killed, then a thawed frozen rodent. At the next feeding, start off with a freshly-killed rodent, followed immediately by a thawed, warmed frozen rodent. When these are easily taken, offer only a thawed, warmed frozen rodent at future feedings.
Converting Non-Rodent Eaters to Eating Rodents
For snakes that normally eat amphibians or lizards, obtain a frog or lizard and euthanize it for feeding. Then rub the lizard or frog all over a suitably-sized thawed, warmed rodent to scent it, then offer the rodent for feeding.
For other suggestions on how to train herptiles to eat thawed frozen rodents or to get reluctant feeders to eat, contact a company that sells frozen rodents, or your local herpetological society.
A great article on training reluctant snakes to eat killed prey can be found at
This information was gathered from the websites of Mice Direct, T-Rex, and CalZoo, by the Rat Assistance & Teaching Society, www.petrats.org, (530) 899-0605,857 Lindo Lane, Chico, CA 95973.
Trish on January 02, 2015:
If your snake is hungry enough it will eat frozen thawed. there is no reason to subject a live rat to that kind of terror, never mind the risk it poses to your snake. It's just not ethical.
Kay on June 26, 2014:
Rats are actually awesome pets, they are very social. Sad to hear you have to feed live ones to some snakes. I'd heard they will be "less wild" if you feed them frozen rodents.