SAN DIEGO - The family of a 10-year-old boy who died from Rat-bite fever is blaming Petco for the boy's death.
Aidan Pankey's family had never even heard of the disease that killed him until he died and they say Petco should have done more to make sure the rat sold to the boy didn't have it.
Aidan loved his family, his friends and his pet rat named Oreo.
"He'd pop her on his shoulder and that little rat would hang on," Aidan's grandmother, Sharon Pankey, said. "It was like she was saying all right! Let's go dad."
It was Aidan's dream for Oreo to have a family of her own but first she needed a mate.
"He said, you know Grammy when Oreo has babies I'm going to be grandpa and you're going to be a great-grandma," Sharon said.
Sharon said Aidan asked if they could stop at the Petco in Carmel Mountain where they picked out a black male rat named Alex and took him home.
"One of the things he loved most, his rat, ended up in him dying because the rat we bought, we found out later, had Rat-bite fever," Sharon said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Rat-bite fever is an infectious disease that can be caused by two different bacteria. It's a rare disease that comes mostly from bites, scratches or handling an infected rodent. And it can be fatal if not treated.
Aidan became sick on a Monday, two weeks after the family bought Alex, and died the next day.
"We didn't know why for a couple of months," Sharon said.
She said the medical examiner sent the male rat to the CDC and it came back positive for Rat-bite fever.
Team 10 called the Petco in Carmel Mountain and an employee said it gets their rats from Barney's Pets, a large animal wholesaler in Chino, California.
Team 10 called the breeder to see if they test for Rat-bite fever but they would not answer our questions.
The Pankey family is filing a lawsuit again Petco claiming various causes of action for strict liability and negligence.
"Clearly there were not sufficient safety procedures in place at Petco when they sold this rat," the family's attorney, Hamilton Arendsen of Gomez Trial Attorneys, said.
Researchers from one of the largest labs in the country told Team 10 a breeder would have to test eight rats to be 95 percent certain a colony of 100 rats or more did not have the disease.
They said it would cost around $40 per rat to run a test just for Rat-bite fever, though other tests could be performed at the same time for an additional cost. A rat costs between $6 and $11 at Petco.
Aidan's death has destroyed the family. The boy's father, Andrew Pankey, said he can't eat, sleep and was forced to take a leave of absence from work.
"He was my family," he said. "I'm probably down 30 to 35 pounds since then. I don't even get hungry. I just go until I pass out."
The family wants Petco to make sure no rats with Rat-bite fever end up in their stores and ultimately in family's homes.
"It sounds bad but I just want him back," Andrew said.
Team 10 reached out to officials from Petco and received the following statement from the company:
"At Petco, we follow what we believe are the industry’s strongest standards for companion animal health and welfare, and we require our vendors to meet the same standards for animal care and well-being. We require our live animal suppliers to meet or exceed USDA requirements for the care and treatment of animals, as well as follow strict requirements for housing, feeding, breeding, shipping and caring for sick or injured animals. We leave specific testing protocols to be determined by our vendors unless we identify a reason for concern."
"We’re saddened by the Pankey family’s tragic loss and are very interested in speaking directly with the family to better understand their claims."
The company also sent us the information regarding care for rats that they give to those who purchase the animals. A care sheet does explain that rats are potential carriers of infectious diseases, including Rat-bite fever. However, the document does not state the disease can be fatal.
Wendy Patrick is a business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University and an attorney. She said waivers do not always protect companies.
"Release forms are tricky because when you sign a release form it's telling you about a lot of the risks, but in a lot of cases, it's not telling you about all of the risks," Patrick told Team 10 on Tuesday. "One of the things that these cases bring up is did the manufacturer do enough, did the seller do enough?"
What to Watch For
There are two types of Rat-bite fever - streptobacillary RBF and spirillary RBF. Here is what you need to watch for, according to the CDC:
Symptoms and signs of streptobacillary RBF
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
Symptoms usually occur 3-10 days after exposure to an infected rodent, but can be delayed as long as three weeks. By this time, any associated bite or scratch wound has usually healed. Within 2-4 days after fever onset, a flat, reddened area with small, raised bumps may appear on the hands and feet. One or more joints may then become swollen, red, or painful.
Symptoms and signs of spirillary RBF (also known as sodoku) can vary
- Fever (that may occur repeatedly)
- Development of an ulcer at the bite wound (when applicable)
- Swelling near the wound
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Rash (occurs following partial healing of the wound)
These symptoms usually occur 7-21 days after exposure to an infected rodent. The symptoms associated with Haverhill fever (RBF you can get from consuming contaminated food or water) can differ from those that occur when you get the disease through bites and/or scratches. The most notable differences may include more severe vomiting and sore throat.