Cali, whose last name was not revealed during a press conference with her doctor and mother, has eczema on her hands, which may have contributed to her infection.
Rat-bite fever is an infectious disease caused by two different bacteria, that can be fatal if left untreated. It's usually transmitted through contact with rodents carrying the bacteria, or through consumption of food or water contaminated with the urine and droppings of infected rodents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“As I was walking out of the room at one point, Cali said to me, ‘The thing I’m going to miss the most about being here is I’m going to miss my pet rat,” Dr. Jane Burns, a Kawasaki disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital who treated Cali, said in a press conference. “And I turned around and that was an ‘Aha’ moment for me.”
Cali had been brought to Burns from an outside emergency room after she developed a high fever, weakness and pain in her limbs, and a full-body rash. Because of her symptoms, it had been suspected that she was suffering from Kawasaki disease, but Burns said she was exhibiting other symptoms that were not consistent with the illness.
Cali, who has eczema on her hands, had the rats, named Onyx and Shell, for two years, according to her mother, identified as Sabrina. The family frequently plays and handles the rats, but had never had an issue with illness.
“My daughter got really sick Friday night with a fever,” Sabrina said in the news conference, posted by ABC Action News. “Saturday it got really, really high and a rash thing kind of started showing up, and Sunday it went up to 104.6 and her rash got drastically worse and she started complaining about not being able to stand up or use her legs and as the night went on it was like her arms weren’t usable and her hands weren’t usable and her rash — her whole body was covered in a rash.”
Sabrina said they decided to take her to the hospital after Tylenol and Ibuprofen failed to address her symptoms.
“It was really scary,” Sabrina said in the press conference. “Really hard to watch.”
Burns said the bacteria that infected Cali is susceptible to many antibiotics and that she was started on Doxycycline, which dramatically improved her condition within three days.
“It’s very susceptible to all penicillin antibiotics, and we treated Cali with Doxycycline, which belongs to a class of antibiotics that also treats another kind of infection that can be transmitted by ticks or chiggers that we have her in the county,” she said.
The family was hoping to be released from the hospital on Sunday, but were not looking forward to having to part with their beloved pets, which they had rescued from a feed store.
“I think that people become very attached to their pets, but if you know the pet is harboring an organism that can be fatal maybe you want to keep twice about keeping that pet in your home,” Burns said in the press conference.
Burns said that those who choose to keep rats as pets should practice safe handling and wash their hands after cleaning the cage or holding them.
“After contact with the rat or cleaning the cage because it can be transmitted through urine – you need to wash your hands, it’s really that simple,” she said. “And you need to avoid being bitten by the rat – because any break in the skin can be a portal of entry and in Cali’s case she had eczema and that might have been a way that the skin was broken or more susceptible, and so even just handling the rat was a source of exposure to the organism in her case.”
Sabrina said she was looking for someone who was willing to take in the rats, which she described as similar to “little dogs.”
“We’ve all cried a lot, we don’t want to do it – it’s going to be really hard, I still have to find somebody who will be willing to take rats, so it’s not a fun thing to tell your kid you have to get rid of your best friend,” Sabria said.