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Modern Parenthood

Infected rat: Keeping your kids safe with any pet

Infected rat: A 10-year-old boy in San Diego has died after reportedly being bitten by a pet rat. While it's not common for infected rats to make their way into homes as pets, it's time for a refresher with our kids on how to handle pets of all kinds.

By Correspondent / February 26, 2014

This undated photo, released by Gomez Trial Attorneys courtesy the Pankey family, shows Aidan Pankey and one of his pet rats.

Courtesy photo from Pankey family/AP

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Following the death of a 10-year-old boy who died, according to the San Diego County medical examiner's office, as the result of being bitten by an infected rat bought as a pet, parents may want to rethink the value of unusual pets and how to warn children before allowing them to play at a home where more exotic animals are kept.

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Correspondent

Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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Aidan Pankey died one day after he brought home a new pet rat that was bought at Petco, according to the ABC affiliate in San Diego. His family is now filed a lawsuit against Petco.

After reading about young Aidan’s death, I am reminded, as all parents should be, that with great pets comes great responsibility for a child’s safety.

As the mom of a 10-year-old boy who adores all animals, and would cuddle and adopt anything that walks, crawls, or flies across his path, Aidan’s story captured my full attention.

Most parents already know to warn kids about how to approach strange dogs – palm down and let them sniff the back of your hand so the dog doesn’t think the child is holding a treat it could snap at.

However, dogs seem to be where our cautionary advice to kids on pets ends, and this news story is a powerful reminder that we should also consider how to approach more exotic pets.

The Animal League website offers some good basic rules for any pet: 

  • Children should not be left alone or allowed to sleep with an animal.
  • Ensure that you and your child always wash hands with soap and water after handling pets.
  • Teach your child not to pull on the ears and tail of animals, or pinch, squeeze, or make loud noises.
  • Never approach strange dogs or animals.
  • Don't allow your pets to lick your child's face or any cuts or scratches.

The choice of an exotic or unusual pet means reading all the literature that comes with it, plus some additional research by parents.

As with anything you hand your child, read the instructions and know the potential dangers before handing it over.

In Aidan’s case, according to ABC, he already owned one rat and had kept it without incident. This was a companion to the first animal that caused the tragedy.

While I am not a rat person, I recently saw how a boy could love one as a pet.

Last month, when the weather was extremely cold, a river rat got into our dining room and was cornered by our two cats.

Quin, 10, and his brothers Ian, 18, and Avery, 14, said, “Aaaaaw! Save it! We can keep it.”

I was shrieking, “They bite! Hit it with something!”

We ended up compromising, with Ian trapping it in a large container and me escorting it to the river a few blocks away with the stern warning not to return.

So rats aren’t my thing, but I know all about how great it is to see your child love a pet, no matter how unusual an animal it may be.

Frankly, when parents consider a pet, we may think more about the creature’s welfare than the child’s, asking “Who’s going to feed it?” and not “Will it hurt my child?”

I was rough on pets as a kid.

When I was a little girl, my father would buy any pet I asked for.

There was the chameleon bought at the circus that I let out of its cage so it could “get some fresh air.” Gone.

There was the canary the cat actually ate, just like in the old expression.

Then there was the bunny given to me at Easter, which died after eating plastic flowers I put in the cage to “make it happy.”

As a parent, I run a two-cat and one-massive-dog family.

The most exotic we’ve gotten as pet people is when my pal Ed Florimont sent the boys a “singing” frog via Grow-a-Frog kit, that allows the owner to watch a frog grow from a tadpole sent in the mail.

Hence, we raised a Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frog, which would trill or “sing” when it was about to rain.

When we moved to Virginia from New Jersey, we donated our frog, which we had dubbed “Frogginstein,” to a local school.

Still, I realize many parents choose more unusual animals as pets because their kids' friends own an exotic pet of their own. Over the years, my four sons have come home asking for: a snake, a ferret, a rat, a hamster, and various lizards – all the result of friends owning one.

Because of these friends, and the requests that resulted, I have become more careful about asking the parents of potential playdates if they have any pets that fall more into the zoo-than-home category.

Animals can add so much to our kids’ lives, teaching them to be responsible caretakers, but we must never forget that these are all domesticated animals with wild instincts.

When we tell our kids the bedtime stories of “Where the Wild Things Are,” it’s important to remember that some of them may be under our roof, curled up beside our children.

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