Jan. 7, 2005 -- Pet hamsters can give people tularemia, says the CDC. A 3-year-old boy in Colorado came down with the bacterial disease last spring after being bitten by an infected hamster, the CDC reports.
It's the first documented case in the U.S. of a pet hamster causing tularemia. However, tularemia has been linked to hamster hunting in Russia.
Tularemia symptoms include sudden fever, chills, headache, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, and progressive weakness. The germ that causes it -- Francisella tularensis -- is highly infectious and considered a potential agent for bioterrorism. However, the CDC does not think bioterrorism was involved in this case.
The boy became sick in April of 2004. His family had bought six hamsters from a Denver-area pet store. All of the hamsters died of diarrhea within a week of being purchased. But one hamster bit the boy on his finger before it died.
The boy soon fell sick. Seven days after being bitten, he had fever, malaise, and painful lymph node swelling in his left arm pit. Skin had also sloughed away around the bite site.
An antibiotic didn't help, so doctors performed a lymph node biopsy. This was done almost two months after his symptoms started.
The node tested positive for Francisella tularensis. Besides the hamster bite, the boy had no other tularemia risk factors, such as other animal contact, exposure to game meat, or bites from ticks, mosquitoes, or flies.
He recovered after further antibiotic treatment.
Pet store workers say an unusually high number of hamsters died around the same time. The hamsters' remains weren't available for testing, but one of the shopkeeper's pet cats tested positive for the tularemia germ. The cat hadn't seemed sick to the store's employees.
Most of the store's hamsters (80%) came from customers whose hamsters had bred too many offspring. The rest came from two breeders of small pets, neither of whom reported any problems with their animals.
The pet store's problem probably started with infected wild rodents, which urinated or defecated in the hamster cages, says the CDC. The pet store owner was advised to set traps for wild rodents and to inform the state health department of animal deaths or ill customers or staff.
"Clinicians and public health officials should be aware that pet hamsters might be a potential source of tularemia," says the CDC in its Jan. 7 Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report.