They have caused such problems throughout history that their very name is an outburst, a four-letter word:

Rats!

They’re an original pest. Invading our homes, contaminating our food, damaging property and even spreading disease. Just seeing one scurrying across your kitchen floor is enough to make you jump, to send a shiver down your spine.

Bob Pierce
Bob Pierce

“There’s not much good about them,” says Bob Pierce, Fisheries and Wildlife Extension Specialist with the University of Missouri.

And the trick to controlling them, he says, is keeping a clean property and catching their tell-tale signs early.

Rats, mice and other rodents rank right up there with bed bugs and termites as among the most damaging infestations a homeowner can deal with.

So what do you do if you see that rat flit across your pantry floor?

Here’s how to get rid of rats.

The Scope of the Rat Problem

Rats are among the most troublesome and damaging rodents in the country, says the University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.

They eat and contaminate food and animal feed, damage structures and property and transmit parasites and disease.

Resilient animals, rats live and thrive in a wide range of climates and conditions, often found in and around homes, buildings, farms, gardens, yards and open fields.

Rats’ burrowing can undermine a building’s foundation and slabs, and their incessant gnawing can damage soft metals like copper and lead as well as plastic and wood. Even the plants in your garden aren’t safe.

That gnawing can also be into electrical wires, posing a fire hazard.

Rat-Transmitted DIseases

But that’s just property damage. Rats also pose a direct health risk to people they come in contact with.

Among the diseases rats can transmit to both humans and animals include typhus, leptospirosis, salmonellosis (food poisoning) and rat bite fever.

Perhaps the disease rats are most known for transmitting is plague.

UCIPM says it’s more associated with other rodents in California, like squirrels, chipmunks and native woodrats, but the rats that give homeowners headaches can also carry Plague.

“They can carry fleas, other sources of bacteria and the types of diseases that are caused by bacteria,” says Pierce.

That’s quite the pest problem. And needless to say, rat removal is imperative.

Common Rat Species

Only a couple species of rat really give American homeowners headaches: Norway rats and their smaller cousins, Roof rats.

Norway rats, also called brown rats, sewer rats, barn rats or wharf rats can grow to be up to one foot long and weigh more than a pound says the University of Maryland Extension.

Its color is typically brownish-gray though some can be reddish. They nest in burrows dug beneath buildings, walks, around ponds and in garbage dumps.

“Norway rats are commonly found where there’s poor sanitation,” Pierce says, noting that that could also be your neighbor’s unkempt backyard. “They’re opportunistic and populations can build up.”

Where there’s one rat, there’s 10 or 20, he says. They can have several broods each year, building populations quickly.

Rat Behavior

Occasionally, the Maryland Extension says, they can burrow in backyard compost piles, which provide a ready food source in table scraps. They eat almost any type of food, including pet food, meat and fish. Fruits, nuts, berries, snails and slugs are their preferred fare.

They’re primarily active at night. If you see one during the day it’s likely the sign of a burgeoning population. They’re quick, agile and hard to catch. They also routinely travel as much as 300 feet to feed, making it a challenge to find their nest.

Their favorite habitat is attics, trees, and overgrown shrubbery or vines, especially in mature landscapes around manufacturing buildings or along riverbanks.

Roof rats can live in the landscape around one building but feed at another. At night you can see them running along utility lines or fence tops.

And, Pierce says, they are accustomed to being near humans. “As long as you have them feel welcome around your place, they’ll stay around.”

Mice and Other Rodents

The common house mouse is one of the most troublesome pests for American homeowners, says the University of Missouri Extension.

Like rats, house mice can nest, live and thrive in a wide variety of locations and are found in and around homes and farms, open fields and acres of crops.

They’re small, brownish rodents with relatively large ears and small eyes and measure about 5.5 to 7.5 inches long from nose to tail.

It’s this small size that’s key in distinguishing mice from their more problematic counterparts.

Squirrels and chipmunks, which can cause similar problems as their rodent cousins, sometimes nest in roofs or attics, gnawing away just like the others.

Luckily, Pierce says tactics to control all these rodent species are similar to that of rats: keeping a clean house and property, physically excluding them from your house, and finally thinning out the population if needed.

3 Ways to Get Rid of Rats

A successful control strategy for rats and other rodents typically includes three elements, says the UC IPM. Those are:

  1. Sanitation.
  2. Rodent proofing.
  3. If necessary, population control.

The same precautions go for mice too, writes Pierce for the University of Missouri Extension.

The first of those, sanitation, is self-explanatory but its importance is hard to overstate. If sanitation isn’t kept up, it will also reduce the effectiveness of other measures you take to keep rats out.

“The important thing is for folks to keep their lawn mowed and remove any kinds of things rodents could hide under,” Pierce says. That includes limbs, boards, anything that could give the rat cover and make it feel safe.

The next step is keeping them out.

Look around your home and fund those places where plumbing and wiring come in and make sure they’re secure, he says. Use a gnaw-proof material such as steel wool or sheet metal to seal gaps.

Squirrels are notorious for finding cozy places in attics, Pierce says. So make sure to clear limbs from around the roofline and keep access points shored up there too.

Here are some guidelines from UCIPM on sanitation and rodent-proofing:

Sanitation

  • Store pipes, lumber, woodpiles, lumber, gardening equipment and other household goods off the ground and neatly organized. This will reduce potential rat habitats and make them easier to spot around the house.
  • Collect garbage, trash and garden debris frequently, ensuring all garbage cans have tight lids to keep rats out.
  • If you have outdoor pets, don’t overfill food bowls. Feed your pet only the amount of food it will eat at one sitting. Store pet food in a rodent-proof container.
  • Trim heavy vegetation, which can be a home for rats and other rodents. Cut back overhanging tree branches to a distance 3 feet from the roof to keep rats from making the jump into your home.

Rodent-Proofing

  • Repair or replace damaged ventilation screen around the foundation and under eaves and provide a tight-fitting cover for your crawl space.
  • Seal openings around access points such as pipes, cables and wires that enter the house through walls or the foundation.
  • Be sure all windows that can be opened are screened and that those screens are in good condition.
  • Cover chimneys with a spark arrester and make sure internal screens on the roof and attic are in good repair.
  • Install screening over rooftop plumbing vent pipes that have more than a 2-inch diameter.
  • Make sure all exterior doors are tight-fitting and weatherproofed at the bottom.

Population Control aka Rat Poison

During WWI, the USDA was not exactly enamored with the rat.

So the food is protected, the house is clean inside and out and all the entry points into your home are covered, but you still have a rat problem.

Time to move on to population control.

The most effective control method, according to UCIPM, is limiting the rats’ access to food, water, shelter and access to your house.

Even so, population control is often necessary, especially if you find yourself dealing with an ongoing rat infestation instead of trying to prevent one.

The first thing is to spot sign of the rats.

Signs of a Rat Infestation

Pierce says to look out for the following signs of rats:

  • Rat droppings.
  • Gnawing through wood on buildings or other structures.
  • Noises from the attic just after dusk.
  • Rat nests.
  • Rodent burrows among garden plants.
  • Damaged vegetables in the garden.
  • Rats traveling along utility lines or fence tops at dusk.
  • Rat burrows beneath compost pile or garbage can.
  • Evidence of digging under outdoor buildings or doghouse.

If you see some of that going on around the house, it’s time to take action.

And the best option for your average homeowner with the average rat infestation? Traps.

Rat Traps

Traps are the safest, most effective way to control rats, says that extension article.

That’s because they don’t rely on hazardous rodenticides, they permit the homeowner to see when a trap has been successful, and it makes it easy to dispose of carcasses easily.

Rat and mouse traps come in a variety of types, but the one that likely springs to mind is the classic wooden snap traps, which the extension calls simple, inexpensive and effective.

Just be sure to get traps big and strong enough for rats, Peirce says.

Plastic versions are also available that are easier to set and clean up after.

“Trapping is certainly effective; very effective when set right,” Pierce says. “Rats are very shy and so if they are able to snap a trap without getting caught it might be difficult to catch that particular one.”

How to Use a Rat Trap

  • Bait rat traps with peanut butter, a small piece of hot dog, bacon or nutmeat, securely tied to the trigger.
  • Set traps so the trigger is sensitive and will easily spring.
  • Leave the traps baited but unset until rats get used to them. Letting them get the bait once or twice will help avoid trap-shy rats and mice.
  • Set traps close to walls, behind objects, in dark corners and in places where you’ve seen activity.
  • Place the trap so that the rat or mouse will travel directly over it in their normal course of travel, usually close to a wall.
  • Place traps between 10-20 feet apart in areas of activity.
  • Use enough traps to make the campaign short and decisive — 12 or more may be needed for a heavily infested home or building.

An alternative to the classic trap are glue traps. As with flypaper, the glue boards stop and trap rodents trying to walk over them. Place them in the same way you would the snap trap, and make sure to keep an eye on them. Don’t put them where pets or kids can stumble on them, and check their tackiness.

Dusty or hot conditions may cause the board to lose its stickiness, says the Missouri Extension.

Rat Poison, Baits

Known as rodenticides, toxic poison baits are often recommended in areas with extensive rat populations.

If you have a particularly bad infestation, or are working in a barn or outbuilding, this type of rodent bait may be the best option for you.

Baiting with rodenticides are specifically recommended for places that rats continually reinfest from surrounding areas.

The lethal chemicals that kill rats come in several varieties, but all are made with an attractant, generally a food, and a toxic chemical, explains the extension.

Some poison baits are safer to use around pets, livestock and children, though, packaged in ready-to-use disposable bait stations available to the general public.

But, if you have a large infestation, bad enough that baits are needed, a professional may be your best bet.

With access to all types of rodenticides, a licensed pest management professional can do the most effective job.

When using any rodenticide, be sure to carefully read and follow all label directions. Some may need to be placed within bait boxes or tamper-resistant bait stations which can be purchased or constructed out of cardboard or plastic.

Best Practices for Rat Traps

For the best results:

  • Make sure to provide a continual source of bait until the rat stops feeding.
  • Place rat bait stations near walls in 10-30 foot intervals where rat activity has been seen.
  • Collect and dispose of any dead rats found during the process by using a plastic bag inverted over your hand. Seal the rodent in the bag and dispose of it with household garbage.
  • Also be sure to collect and properly dispose of all uneaten bait at the end of the control program.

What Doesn’t Work: Cats, Ultrasound

One old rat control method and one modern one have something in common: They don’t really work well.

Instinct might say a cat should take care of that rat problem, but research suggests otherwise.

As the Missouri Extension says, while house cats and some dogs may kill individual rats, they don’t effectively control rat populations as a whole.

Cats and dogs can have the opposite effect. Rats and mice will often eat food left out for family pets.

Rat repellents, like high-tech ultrasonic devices that emit sounds too high-pitched for humans to hear, but that send rats scurrying for cover.

The rats become accustomed to the sound, though, and the verdict is still out on whether they actually repel the rodents.

Non-Lethal Options

Many folks don’t want to have to resort to killing the animals as part of their rodent control plan, especially when it comes to squirrels or chipmunks.

Professional pest control services can help. With non-lethal traps that cage the animal, the pest control technician can safely remove a rodent without killing it.

Set those traps just as described for lethal traps. Check them often, and when full, remove them and the live animals with them.

It may be an option, but Pierce doesn’t recommend the non-lethal route when it comes to rats.

“I understand people’s feelings,” he said, but rats pose plenty of problems.

You don’t want to release it somewhere it will just become someone else’s problem, Pierce says, and you may even be spreading diseases into another rodent population.

Your best bet, he says, is to stop them from getting established in the first place.

Hiring a Rat Pest Control Pro

For rat infestations, many people choose to shy away from the DIY approach and call a professional pest control company. It’s an important, tricky job and those pro exterminators know how to get it right.

A pest control professional can bring area expertise and economy of scale to the job, but how much they’ll charge largely depends on location and size of the infestation.

According to Angie’s List, the national average cost of hiring a professional for rat extermination costs between $100 and $575 for a job that requires 10 traps.

Rat exterminators may offer a free quote, looking at the extent of the infestation, where the rats are coming from and what needs to be done — all factors that impact the final cost.

But whether you go with classic snap traps, a detailed and precise poison bait plan, or call in the pros while you enjoy a Saturday off, solving that rodent problem in your home will not only let you sleep easy, it will protect your house from damage and potential disease.

“Just be observant,” Pierce says. “Make sure you are aware when you see signs of activity and to take action as soon as you can and not let the population build up.”

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