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


Robin C, Perkins E, Watkins F, Christley R


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.


International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

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