Petco Sued for Death of 10-Year-Old Calif. Boy, Aiden Pankey, Who Contracted Rat Bite Fever

| by Phyllis M Daugherty

The family of a 10-year-old San Diego, Calif., boy who died from rat bite fever is suing Petco for the boy’s death.

Aiden Pankey died last summer after his new pet rat infected him with streptobacillus moniliformis, also known as rat bite fever, a disease reportedly carried by a rodent purchased from Petco, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Aiden’s grandmother, Sharon Pankey, told ABC News that the young boy was “such a good care taker and so loving” and taking care of the rat and wanting her to have a family ultimately lead to his death.

The boy and his grandmother went to the pet store on Memorial Day last year to buy a companion for his pet rat Oreo, planning to breed the pair. The family called it their “the summer science project.”

Two weeks after buying the male rat, Aiden developed what his grandmother called “flu-like symptoms” and died within 48 hours. She described the moments before his death as “numbing” and “soul biting.”

[Aidan] appeared lethargic, pale, and could barely walk,” the lawsuit filed by the family against Petco describes. Aidan, who started experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” woke up on the night of June 11, 2013, with a fever and stomach problems and died a few hours later at a children’s hospital.

“I put him to bed after a day at the doctor’s office and the next thing I knew it just was too late,” she said. ”I went into his room and he couldn’t speak. He was unstable on his feet. I got him down to my room and he collapsed on the floor. I called 911 because it was scaring me that his breathing was shallow and he seemed to be losing his ability to function,” Sharon Pankey said.

It wasn’t until Christmas – more than six months after the boy’s death – that the medical examiner reportedly confirmed to the family that Pankey had died from the infectious disease contracted from the rat.

Hamilton Arendsen, the family’s lawyer, told ABC News that his client is suing Petco for failing to have sufficient procedures in place to prevent incidents like this to occur. The boy’s family is suing Petco for strict liability and negligence and will be seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorney Arendsen said.

Petco officials expressed their sympathy in a statement:

“We are deeply saddened by the Pankey family’s tragic loss. The health and safety of people and pets is always our top priority and we take the family’s concerns very seriously. We are investigating the claims and will respond when we have more information.”

The San Diego Medical Examiner’s office stated that the illness carries a mortality rate of 13 percent if left untreated; however, its symptoms are nonspecific, which may prevent an early diagnosis.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are two forms of rat-bite fever: streptobacillus moniliformis and spirillum minus. In the United States, the most common form of the illness is caused by streptobacillus moniliformis. The latter is commonly found in Asia.

Symptoms and signs of streptobacillary RBF include fever, vomiting, headache, muscle and joint pain, and a rash. These usually occur 3 to 10 days after exposure to an infected rodent but can be delayed up to three weeks.

After the onset of fever, a red, bumpy rash may appear on the hands and feet. Joints can become swollen, red and painful.


Rat-bite fever exposure is typically caused by a bite or a scratch from an infected rodent. Even handling an infected rodent or consuming food contaminated with the bacteria could result in transmission of the disease. The illness isn't contagious between humans.


Once diagnosed, rat-bite fever can be treated with antibiotics, most likely penicillin. Without treatment, the illness could be fatal or cause infections involving the heart, brain or lungs.


The best way to avoid contracting the illness is to avoid contact with rats or rat-contaminated dwellings altogether. If contact can't be avoided, then wearing protective gloves and regular hand washing to avoid hand-to-mouth contamination can decrease one’s risk of exposure.


Rat-bite fever was first described in India more than 2,300 years ago. It was first reported in the U.S. in 1839. In North America, streptobacillus moniliformis has been known to infect laboratory technicians and the poor. Since rats have become popular pets, children now account for more than 50 percent of cases in the U.S.

Sources: ABC, IBT