CBSN

Rat raised to feed family's snakes fatally bit baby

Bites or scratches from rats, like the one seen in this file photo, can transmit rat-bite fever, a rare bacterial infection that can be fatal.

Vilius Paskevicius

CARLISLE, Pa. -- A rat being raised to feed a family's pet snakes ended up biting a 6-month-old boy and transmitting diseases that killed him, authorities said Thursday.

An autopsy found that the baby died from meningitis and myocarditis, and a later investigation determined that the infant had been bitten on the finger by a rat, Cumberland County Coroner Charlie Hall said.

Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, while myocarditis is a rare inflammation of the heart wall. Both conditions can be caused by viral or bacterial infections.

It was difficult determining a cause of death, and lab tests that came back last week showed the baby had rat-bite fever, which caused the meningitis and myocarditis, Hall said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says rat-bite fever, a bacterial disease spread by bites or scratches from infected rodents, is extremely rare in the U.S.

"The tests came back positive and the tests showed it was pretty dominant in the baby's brain," Hall said. He said he had never seen a case like this one, CBS affiliate WHP in Harrisburg reports.

"It's bizarre," Hall told the York Dispatch newspaper.

The infant and the family, who live in Dillsburg, in neighboring York County, were not identified. The child was treated at a hospital emergency room Dec. 30 for a fever and a rash. Two days later, the lethargic and feverish child was brought back and died in the emergency room, Hall said.

Police and child welfare caseworkers were investigating the matter.

Hall said he notified child welfare caseworkers because a 3-year-old is among the extended family members who live in the home where the bite occurred, the coroner told the Dispatch.

Carroll Township Police Chief Tom Wargo said his department was notified last week. The parents are cooperating and it is too early in the investigation to know whether charges will be filed, Wargo told the Dispatch.