Ten-year-old Aiden Pankey was rushed to the hospital on June 12, 2013, with severe stomach pain. As the Associated Press reports, Aiden had woken up during the night with a fever, stomach problems, and severe pain. He was pale, lethargic, and could not walk. Aiden died later that afternoon.
In 2014, his parents sued Petco after it was discovered Aiden died from a streptobacillus moniliformis infection, also known as rat-bite fever. He had come home from the San Diego pet store chain on May 27, 2013, with a new pet rat named “Alex” that had been purchased by his grandma.
As the AP reports, in the lawsuit filed by Andrew Pankey and Vanessa Sauer, Aiden's parents allege that Petco should have tested the rat for the disease. The pet store should have also posted warnings about the potential risks of owning a rat, especially among children.
According to The San Diego Tribune, on April 5, 2017, a lawyer for the family, Bibianne Fell, told jurors in her opening remarks at the San Diego Superior Court that Petco knew of the “hidden danger” of rat-bite fever, as there were dozens of reported cases of adults and children getting sick after buying rats from Petco:
“Despite this, you will hear that Petco is still selling rats to kids and kids are still getting sick. To this day,” she added, “Petco is still selling rats.”
Attorneys for Petco and Barney's Pets, who supplied the rats, claim that testing each rat sold across Petco stores in the United States is impossible, and that customers are warned of the inherent risks of rat ownership.
They contend that customers — including Aiden's grandmother — are given a form to sign upon purchasing a rat that alerts them to rat-bite fever.
However, citing the seven to thirteen percent mortality rate if rat-bite fever is left untreated, Fell stated that the risk of death is not made clear in the warning.
The AP reports the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as stating:
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.
There was no evidence at the time of Aiden's death that he had been bitten.
According to Inside Edition.com, Petco claimed to have sold five million rats between 2001 and 2013. During that time, sixteen people were reported to have contracted the disease but were treated and recovered. Antibiotics such as penicillin are reportedly effective for treating rat-bite fever, and the CDC also states that the disease is rarely fatal.
Aiden's father is seeking an unspecified amount of damage, reports The San Diego Tribune. His mother reportedly settled with Petco before the case went to trial.
According to the AP, the number of cases of rat-bite fever might be increasing especially among children, due to the popularity of pet rats. The bacteria that causes rat-bite fever is a part of their normal respiratory system.