The main belief that rats are major disease-carrying vectors might be true. Rats can absorb disease agents from the environment and spread them to animals and humans, a new study says.

The new study exposes the disease-carrying ability of rats and the researchers want to raise the alarm on the health dangers they could bring across the globe.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia have found that rats pose a health threat not only to poultry but also to humans.

When the researchers looked for pathogens in the feces from rats caught in a farm, they found that many rats were free of E. coli and Salmonella, but a subset carries the strains that were resistant to antibiotics. They discovered that more than a quarter of the rats carried multi-drug resistant strain of E. coli, which is very hard to treat.

The new study derives from a previous research that dealt with isolating pathogens carried by rats. The past study found the presence of C. difficile and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in rat feces.

According to Dr. Chelsea Himsworth of UBC's School of Population and Public Health, the rats act as a pathogen sponge that pick up or absorb bacteria from the environment.

"If rats can absorb pathogenic E. coli, then they could potentially be a source of all sorts of other pathogens that we have not anticipated," Himsworth said.

The researchers were intrigued that the strains of E.coli carried by rats from the farm were similar to those discovered in chickens. They were, however, different to those found in urban rats.

"The strains of E. coli and Salmonella that we found in the urban rats were similar to what would be found in urban environment and the strains of E. coli and Salmonella that we found in the rural rats were similar to what would be found in an agricultural environment," the researchers said.

The results of the study show that the rats are vectors, and its ability to carry pathogens is not an innate characteristic, but a function of the bacteria present in their environment.

Though further study and research is needed, the researchers suggest that rat poop can be dangerous and a means of disease spread.

The new study is part of the Vancouver Rat Project, which has a goal to address the knowledge gap on health risks posed by rats and find a way to address them.

Photo: Jean-Jacques Boujot | Flickr

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