A Portland man filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the pet supply chain store Petco, claiming he was infected with rat-bite fever from a rat he purchased from the retail chain’s South Portland store.
Dominic Profenno Jr. said in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Portland that he was bitten twice on March 12 by the rat he purchased from the store on Feb. 22. He contracted the rare infectious disease and was hospitalized for 35 days.
“He could have died,” Profenno’s attorney, Thomas Douglas, said in a phone interview. “He spent a lot of time at Maine Medical Center and then New England Rehabilitation Hospital.”
Profenno said in the lawsuit that the disease caused “multiple spinal abscesses, painful inflammation of his joints, extreme debilitation and pain and suffering.”
Profenno, 51, was out of work as a building cleaner during the time he was hospitalized. He has now recovered enough to return to work, his attorney said.
A manager at the South Portland Petco store deferred comment on the lawsuit to the chain’s corporate office in San Diego, which did not immediately return a phone message.
Profenno’s lawsuit comes less than two months after the family of a 10-year-old California boy sued Petco after the boy died of rat-bite fever.
In the California case, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that the boy, Aiden Pankey, died on June 12, 2013, from the disease. The boy’s family contends in the lawsuit that the disease was carried by a rodent purchased from a Petco in San Diego, according to The Associated Press.
Profenno bought the rat from Petco’s store at 220 Maine Mall Road to feed to his son’s pet boa constrictor, as he had done every two to four weeks in the past. Profenno kept the rat in a 10-gallon aquarium in his apartment until he tried to feed it to the snake, according to the lawsuit.
The snake has since consumed the rat and was not harmed, Douglas said.
Profenno said he is still undergoing regular treatments for the disease and that his medical expenses so far exceed $170,000. The lawsuit says Petco breached its implied warranty, is liable and was negligent. He is seeking unspecified monetary damages and fees.
Maine Medical Center could not immediately confirm whether Profenno had been admitted or discharged from the hospital. A phone message left with New England Rehabilitation Hospital was not returned.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists rat-bite fever as a serious or even fatal disease if left untreated.
It is caused by two bacteria, one in North America and the other in Asia. Symptoms of the North American strain include fever, vomiting, headache, muscle pain, joint pain and rash. Symptoms usually occur within three to 10 days after infection.
People usually contract the disease through consumption of contaminated food or water, though it can also be transmitted through bites and scratches from infected animals or by handling rodents that have the disease. Rat-bite fever cannot be spread from one person to another.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Martins said he could not immediately confirm whether Profenno’s case had been reported to the state or whether any other cases of rat-bite fever had been reported in Maine.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: