SILVER SPRING, Md. — The first time I saw my dog flush a furry critter with a thin, bald tail from under a shrub by my patio, I told myself it was just a mouse. A few nights later, the dog drove a slightly larger, furry, bald-tailed critter from the same spot, and I had to face the horrifying truth.
Rats are vermin in a class by themselves. The sight of one on your turf is more likely to prompt a bloodcurdling scream than a mere "Eek!" Highly adaptable, they can live most anyplace, eat most anything and breed, well, like rats. They may spread disease, do serious damage to your home and even bite.
Unless you're of a live-and-let-live philosophy, a rat infiltration calls for a speedy counterattack. That means an emergency call to an exterminator or, if you're not too squeamish, going after them on your own. If you do, here are some of the options:
Common rat traps include snap traps, bait boxes and glue traps.
Snap traps are usually inexpensive and easy to bait with peanut butter, whole nuts, raisins and rolled oats — or, to catch nesting females, tufts of cotton. Rats especially love peanut butter, and it's harder than cheese to get at without setting off the trap.
The downside: Snap traps should only be set where no children or pets can get to them. If children and pets are a concern, the snap traps can be placed in a trapping station, said William Kern Jr., a rat expert and associate professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
Poison, either boxes of it or bait boxes filled with it, tends to be inexpensive and can kill multiple rats. A poisoned rat could stagger off and die anywhere, however, undetected until it starts to smell.
"Traps are always recommended because that way you don't have a poisoned animal getting into someplace inaccessible like a wall void or attic and then causing an odor problem," Kern said. "With a trap you know where the dead animal is."
There also is a risk that children or pets will get into the poison, or that pets will eat a poisoned rat.
Electronic boxes that are baited to lure the rat in, then electrocute it, are another option. They often have an indicator that shows when there is a dead rat inside. Some kill only one rat at a time, and in that case the box must be emptied before it will work again. They tend to cost a bit more than some other types of traps.
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Glue boards are cheap and meant to literally stop a rat in its tracks. The main con: They are unlikely to kill the rat, unless it is stuck there a long, long time. That means dealing with a live rat rather than a dead one.
Rat "bombs" that emit noxious fumes can be stuck down a hole to gas out the rats. They tend to be inexpensive. The cons include making sure you seal the hole and run away fast enough to escape the fumes yourself, and the possibility that rats will simply move back in after the fumes clear.
One household-pest expert swears by oil of peppermint, available at natural-food stores. Put some on cotton balls and place them anywhere you're having a problem, or put some in a spray bottle with water and spray around the house, said Myles Bader of Port Charlotte, Fla., who wrote a book called "Club the Bugs and Scare the Critters."
Rodents hate it, said Bader, who has used it to drive rats out of his attic. The key is to get oil of peppermint rather than the alcohol-based peppermint extract found at the supermarket, which would result in "drunk rats running around your property," he said.
A negative with peppermint oil: It's more effective indoors than out, where rain will quickly wash it away.
Homeowners also can plant peppermint or other plants that rats dislike, such as daffodils and hyacinths, around the house and yard, Bader said.
‘Killer mashed potatoes’
Other natural remedies include what Bader calls "Killer Mashed Potatoes." Leave a bowl of potato flakes and a small bowl of water out. Rats that eat the flakes and drink the water will be killed when the flakes expand in their stomachs, he said.
These range from inexpensive to expensive and can be found online and at hardware stores. They typically plug into an electrical outlet and are supposed to emit ultrasonic signals that repel rats, other rodents and insects.
The University of Florida's Kern said rats can hear it, but the devices will only be effective if the rats are out in the open. It might be possible to position the device to drive rats into traps, since they may try to get behind an object to escape the sound, he said.
Cats, dogs, snakes, owls and ferrets may be useful in rodent control.
The typical cat or dog is most likely to come across a stupid young rat; older rats are usually too savvy to get caught, Kern said. In addition, cats are more likely to go after mice than tangle with rats, which are fierce fighters, he said.
Some dogs, such as several types of terriers, were bred to kill rodents. But terrier and dachshund owner Jo Ann Frier-Murza said she wouldn't recommend that homeowners adopt a ratter to try to deal with a rodent problem. Rats live in inaccessible places, come out at night and are stealthy, so the dog could do a lot of damage and make a lot of noise trying to get at a rat without succeeding, she said. The dog's presence might disturb rats to the point that they move off the property, but there is more to consider, she added.
"The dog is going to be controlling the rat problem a tenth of a percent of their time," said Frier-Murza, who lives in Chesterfield, N.J. Terriers, whose prey drive tends to come with an independent streak, can be challenging to own and aren't recommended for everybody, she said.
Snakes can be useful because they can go all the way into a rat hole and eat all the babies in a nest, Kern said. A big downside: Once snakes move in and run out of rats, they may start eating things you don't want them to, such as birds.
Ferrets also will go into rat holes and have been used for pest control. But they emit an unpleasant musky odor, Kern said.
Owls can be handy rat hunters, especially in the country or near golf courses or parkland, said Kern, who recommends putting up owl boxes to attract them.
A good offense
Even if you have never spotted a rat, it's wise to take steps to make your home unattractive to them. Eliminate ground cover and outdoor sources of water and food, and seal possible avenues into your home.
Lucky for me, I haven't spotted another one since my Australian shepherd chased away Rat No. 2. I moved the shrub, so there is no foliage against the house; stopped filling my bird feeder; tidied my storage shed; and installed an ultrasonic unit in my sunporch.
Lastly, I gave my best weapon, my fearless Australian shepherd, an extra biscuit and lots of praise after her rat chase. It would take a pretty dumb rat to show its face when she's around.
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