Pets, purity and pollution: Why conventional models of disease transmission do not work for pet rat owners

Charlotte Robin*, Elizabeth Perkins, Francine Watkins, Robert Christley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


In the United Kingdom, following the emergence of Seoul hantavirus in pet rat owners in 2012, public health authorities tried to communicate the risk of this zoonotic disease, but had limited success. To explore this lack of engagement with health advice, we conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with pet rat owners and analysed them using a grounded theory approach. The findings from these interviews suggest that rat owners construct their pets as different from wild rats, and by elevating the rat to the status of a pet, the powerful associations that rats have with dirt and disease are removed. Removing the rat from the contaminated outside world moves their pet rat from being ‘out of place’ to ‘in place’. A concept of ‘bounded purity’ keeps the rat protected within the home, allowing owners to interact with their pet, safe in the knowledge that it is clean and disease-free. Additionally, owners constructed a ‘hierarchy of purity’ for their pets, and it is on this structure of disease and risk that owners base their behaviour, not conventional biomedical models of disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1526
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments: The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit (NIHR HPRU) in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at University of Liverpool in partnership with Public Health England (PHE), in collaboration with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Charlotte Robin is based at University of Liverpool. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, the Department of Health or Public Health England.

Funding Information:
This paper is based on a study conducted in the Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections, which is funded by the National Institute for Health Research. It was a mixed methods study designed to elicit an understanding of disease and risk in human populations in contact with pet and wild rats. The study adopts a symbolic interactionist perspective, starting from the premise that Seoul virus is not a single biological entity, but a collection of meanings produced through identity and social interactions. This approach to examining Seoul virus differs from a biomedical model in which hantaviruses are a universal biological entity. In line with the theory of symbolic interactionism, we used Kathy Charmaz’s approach to grounded theory [17]. This approach enabled an exploration of what individuals construct, and why these constructions evolve [17]. For the purposes of this paper, a subset of in-depth interviews with seven pet rat owners and breeders in England has been analysed. While pet rat owners are identified within the biomedical model as those most at risk of the disease, this study seeks to understand the socially constructed meaning of Seoul virus for them [18].

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Emerging zoonotic infection
  • Human-animal interaction
  • Mary Douglas
  • Risk
  • Seoul hantavirus
  • Social constructionism


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