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Pest Gallery > Rats

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Rats carry a number of diseases and parasites, but which diseases, and what percentage of the rat population is infected, vary with the population under study. Wild rats carry mycoplasma, though the percentage of the population that is infected may vary from place to place. Wild rats do not carry the plague. When rats catch the plague, they die from it. Other wild rodents who are resistant to the plague carry it in their bloodstream, and the plague is transmitted from animal to animal by fleas. Plague epidemics were caused by the plague jumping (by flea) from these wild rodents to rats, and from rats (before or as they died) to humans. Today, the plague is treatable with antibiotics and cases are rare.

Young rats of less than 40 days of age were nursing or near their mother and were never bitten. After the rats were weaned they started receiving a very few bites from other rats. Constant, low levels of aggression and biting continued until the rats reached social maturity at around 6 months for males and 8.1 months for females. At this age the rats received about 1.75 bites per female and 1.81 bites per male. After this age wounding increased over several months to stabilize at about 7 bites per female at age 368 days (12.3 months) and 9.5 bites per male at 266 days (8.9 months). The level of aggression in this population is probably higher than that of free-living wild rats, because this population was confined and social strife was common. The wounds were usually small and were inflicted on the rump. If the wounds didn't become infected they typically healed within 2 weeks. However, some wounds became infected, and developed into extensive shallow festering wounds that took weeks or months to heal.

Parasite infection can affect the behavior of wild rats. Webster et al. 1994 and Webster 1994 found that rats who carried Toxoplasma gondii were more active and more likely to approach novel stimuli than uninfected rats. Infected rats were also more likely to be trapped than uninfected rats. The differences in behavior may come from pathological changes caused by Toxoplasma: cysts in the brains of infected rats.These behavioral changes in the rats may be advantageous to the parasite because these changes render the rat more likely to be eaten by a domestic cat -- the preferred host of Toxoplasma. Toxoplasma only influences behaviors that benefit itself, such as exploratory behavior, rather than causing a general alteration of the rat's behavior.
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