The devil is in the details-host disease and co-infections are associated with zoonotic pathogen carriage in Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus).
Traditionally, zoonotic pathogen ecology studies in wildlife have focused on the interplay among hosts, their demographic characteristics and their pathogens. But pathogen ecology is also influenced by factors that traverse the hierarchical scale of biological organization, ranging from within-host factors at the molecular, cellular and organ levels, all the way to the host population within a larger environment. The influence of host disease and co-infections on zoonotic pathogen carriage in hosts is important because these factors may be key to a more holistic understanding of pathogen ecology in wildlife hosts, which are a major source of emerging infectious diseases in humans. Using wild Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) as a model species, the purpose of this study was to investigate how host disease and co-infections impact the carriage of zoonotic pathogens. Following a systematic trap and removal study, we tested the rats for the presence of two potentially zoonotic bacterial pathogens (Bartonella tribocorum and Leptospira interrogans) and assessed them for host disease not attributable to these bacteria (i.e., nematode parasites, and macroscopic and microscopic lesions). We fitted multilevel multivariable logistic regression models with pathogen status as the outcome, lesions and parasites as predictor variables and city block as a random effect. Rats had significantly increased odds of being infected with B. tribocorum if they had a concurrent nematode infection in one or more organ systems. Rats with bite wounds, any macroscopic lesion, cardiomyopathy or tracheitis had significantly increased odds of being infected with L. interrogans. These results suggest that host disease may have an important role in the ecology and epidemiology of rat-associated zoonotic pathogens. Our multiscale approach to assessing complex intrahost factors in relation to zoonotic pathogen carriage may be applicable to future studies in rats and other wildlife hosts.