Beyond abundance: how microenvironmental features and weather influence Bartonella tribocorum infection in wild Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus).
Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) inhabit cities worldwide and carry a number of zoonotic pathogens. Although many studies have investigated rat-level risk factors, there is limited research on the effects of weather and environment on zoonotic pathogen transmission ecology in rats. The objective of this study was to use a disease ecology approach to understand how abiotic (weather and urban microenvironmental features) and biotic (relative rat population abundance) factors affect Bartonella tribocorum prevalence in urban Norway rats from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This potentially zoonotic pathogen is primarily transmitted by fleas and is common among rodents, including rats, around the world. During a systematic rat trap and removal study, city blocks were evaluated for 48 environmental variables related to waste, land/alley use and property condition, and rat abundance. We constructed 32 weather (temperature and precipitation) variables with time lags prior to the date we captured each rat. We fitted multivariable logistic regression models with rat pathogen status as the outcome. The odds of a rat testing positive for B. tribocorum were significantly lower for rats in city blocks with one or more low-rise apartment buildings compared to blocks with none (OR=0.20; 95% CI: 0.04-0.80; p=.02). The reason for this association may be related to unmeasured factors that influence pathogen transmission and maintenance, as well as flea vector survival. Bartonella tribocorum infection in rats was positively associated with high minimum temperatures for several time periods prior to rat capture. This finding suggests that a baseline minimum temperature may be necessary for flea vector survival and B. tribocorum transmission among rats. There was no significant association with rat abundance, suggesting a lack of density-dependent pathogen transmission. This study is an important first step to understanding how environment and weather impacts rat infections including zoonotic pathogen ecology in urban ecosystems.