Going to the pet store and seeing all of the amazing animals on offer is an exciting experience for any child – and ten-year-old Aidan Pankey was no exception. However, just two weeks after his visit, he would suddenly become sick, and then in a matter of hours, the little boy was dead. But Aidan’s tragic passing left many unanswered questions. So what exactly had happened to him?
Aidan lived in San Diego, California, and he absolutely loved his pets. He also knew exactly what animal he wanted to get next, and soon the little boy would make his way to the pet store to pick up a new best friend.
When the day came around, Aidan and his grandma, Sharon, headed to a branch of Petco to purchase the new pet. And while there was nothing remarkable about their visit, it would soon have terrible consequences.
At the Petco outlet, Aidan picked out a small, gray rat, which he named Alex. It was a special day. Aidan instantly fell in love with his little friend, and all seemed well as the three of them returned home.
The animal was actually bought in order to be the male partner for Aidan’s female rat: he wanted them to get married. And, besotted with his new pal, Aidan insisted on taking Alex with him everywhere. They even shared bath time together.
Yes, Aidan and Alex were inseparable, and the boy would often kiss and cuddle his rats. What’s more, Aidan and his pets frequently posed for pictures together at home and outside – whatever they were doing.
But two weeks after his visit to the pet store, Aidan’s parents noticed that he was becoming ill. He was gripped by a fever and had an upset stomach, so they rushed the boy to get medical help. The doctor who then saw Aidan believed that he had the flu and advised his parents to keep him at home for rest and to ensure that he was kept hydrated.
But he never recovered from the fever. After seeing the doctor, Aidan spent another night in agony. He complained of pain and stomach upsets – and his parents remained deeply concerned. The happy young boy had become a shadow of his former self, pale and unable to even walk.
Just a day later, Aidan was sent to hospital in an ambulance. However, it was too late to save him. In the early hours of the morning, he passed away. His parents, naturally, were devastated.
An autopsy then took place to try and make sense of the tragedy for the boy’s family – and the results revealed something shocking. Aidan’s death had been caused by rat-bite fever. Handling his new pet had led to his sudden death.
Officially known as a Streptobacillus moniliformis infection, rat-bite fever causes vomiting, headaches, rashes and fever in people who have come into contact with rodents. If antibiotics are not provided in time, the fever can be fatal.
But it’s not just rats that may spread this infection. Mice and gerbils can also cause the onset of the disease in humans. In some cases, the affected person will have been bitten before becoming symptomatic – but in other instances, just touching or being scratched by a rodent has been enough to cause infection.
Ultimately, Aidan’s closeness to his rat Alex was the cause of his death. While the rat seemed healthy, it was in fact host to a killer disease. However, the pet shop where Aidan bought Alex had actually provided warnings about the infection, among other dangers, in their guidelines about caring for animals.
Despite the risks, though, Aidan had had his heart set on the rat. And his parents reported that he had never been bitten by the animal – so we can only guess that their close contact must have exposed him to the rat’s saliva or some other vector of contagion.
In any event, devastated, Aidan’s father Andrew Pankey launched a lawsuit against Petco, the pet shop chain which had sold the rat. “I’m fighting this case to protect some children because I don’t want this to happen to another family,” British newspaper The Sun quoted him as saying. “I still talk to him, tell him I love him, that daddy is not going to give up.”
The civil case was, however, ultimately unsuccessful. Furthermore, a previous suit, brought by Aiden’s mother, Vanessa Sauer, had been settled before reaching trial. Speaking to The San Diego Union-Tribune, John Gomez – representing Aidan’s father at the latest court hearing – explained that the family wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of rats and the fact that of all the rats that Petco had randomly tested for the potentially infectious bacteria, half were carriers.
Petco released a statement in response to the sad story. It read, “We remain deeply saddened by the Pankey family’s tragic loss and are committed to continuing to provide the highest level of safety to our customers in the future. The safety of people and pets is always Petco’s top priority.”
Meanwhile, despite losing the case, the family will continue to fight to raise awareness. Both mom Vanessa and dad Andrew want other families to know the risks surrounding rats. And speaking after the end of the civil case, their attorney told The San Diego Union-Tribute, “I’m quite confident there’s going to be changes, and then we’re going to come back and try this case again and we’re going to win it.”
Precisely how Aidan contracted the disease remains a mystery, though. His grandmother issued the warning that when shopping for pets, it’s a case of “buyer beware.” “Don’t assume that something you buy from a big corporation is safe,” she told The San Diego Union-Tribute. She also noted that shoppers can ask Petco to test animals for disease and infection – a step that could show an apparently healthy animal to actually be possibly deadly.
This sad case highlights the potentially lethal risks that rats can pose to humans. Indeed, Aidan’s tragic death represents a warning to any parents who might be considering buying a pet rat for their child.