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April 01, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, April 01, 2005

Rats! Rats! (April 01, 2005)

When the patter of little feet ain't so sweet

by Stephanie Ericson

I first heard sounds of scampering across our ceiling in early summer. I was surprised at how robust they sounded and idly thought, "Mice on steroids." I checked around our messy cockatiels' birdcage, where these rodents have ventured a couple of times in past years for some good eatin', and found no traces. Still, I figured it was time to get out the old mousetraps.

Wrong! This time it was rats that had invaded our Tri-Valley home, and our traps were definitely too wimpy for this job. We realized our mistake slowly, however. After hearing rustling in our garage several evenings in a row, my husband spotted what he thought was a large mouse in the spare birdcage stored there, before the rodent quickly fled. The next night I observed it frantically squeezing out through the narrow cage bars in its escape, quaking all the while, as I marveled at both its size and supple agility.

I realized, of course, that the cage was serving as a rodent smorgasbord of scrumptious nuts and grains, quickly corrected with a good cleaning, but I hadn't quite come to grips with the reality of rats. This one was probably a half-grown juvenile, smaller than the ones we later caught.

"Rats in our neighborhood? Never heard of it," we thought. Furthermore, I expected rats to be aggressive, ready to stare you down and bare their fangs, not tremble and scamper away like this timid soul. After all, I had heard all those stories of rats biting babies in their cribs.

A few calls to local exterminators set us straight. I learned that rats are widespread everywhere in the Bay Area, including the Tri-Valley.

"They're more prevalent than people think," said Garland Buckner, owner of Rat Patrol, an Alamo-based rodent control company that services the East Bay. "People feel bad, embarrassed, and think it has something to do with being dirty, but that's not the case. And they're surprised when they talk to their neighbors and find the problem is more common than they thought."

Rats have no socioeconomic bias, either. Exterminators find them in million dollar homes as often as in more modest domiciles. In fact, Western Exterminator Co. manager Denis LeBreton guesses there are more rats per capita in Blackhawk than anywhere else. And the problem has grown over time.

"There has been a phenomenal increase in roof rats in residential and commercial businesses in the Tri-Valley over the last 15-20 years," said LeBreton, who has been in the industry for 29 years. "It's unbelievable. They are in just about every housing track and every development."

Some speculate that new construction plays a role, displacing rodents from their natural living quarters while providing new sources of food, human and pet, and even more fruit trees. As well, milder winters in recent years mean fewer die off from cold. Rats can multiply 10 times in the course of a year.

If there's any good news, it's that by far the most common rat found here is the roof rat, which is far less aggressive than the Norway or sewer rat. Roof rats have larger ears, a smoother coat, are somewhat shorter and more slender than Norway rats. The most distinctive difference is that the roof rat's tail is longer than its combined head and body length (6-8 inches for adults), while its heavier cousin's tail is shorter.

Even so, I got quite a shock one night while watching TV in bed when I spied a roof rat perched boldly on an open sink cabinet drawer. It quickly fled to the safety of inner wall space through a rat-enlarged hole around the sink pipe.

Rat droppings, the primary evidence of their presence aside from noise, differ somewhat between the two species. Those from roof rats are up to 1/2-inch long and are spindle-shaped with pointed ends, while Norway rats leave droppings up to 3/4-inch that are capsule-shaped with blunt ends.

Pest control companies vary in what they charge, up to $500-$600, so it's important to ask questions on their methods and guarantees. Some fees include follow-up visits to collect cadavers and reset traps, and others charge separately for these services.

Avoid the few companies that use poison bait because there's always the chance that the dying rats will expire in your walls and emit a horrific odor. It goes away when the bodies finish decomposing but in the meantime you'll be gagging on the smell. Some companies even require you to sign a waiver holding them harmless in such an eventuality.

However, most exterminators use snap traps and emphasize the importance of a good house inspection, followed by sealing up the entry points when it appears the current invaders have been snagged.

"Rats can get in through a 1/2-inch opening," explained Jeff Anderson, owner of Critter Control. "We look for holes in the vent screens for the foundation around the perimeter of the house and up underneath eaves. Many times these are open." Often you will find rat droppings or chew marks at entry sites.

If rats are in your garage, they sometimes can get into the house through gaps around pipes or wires that go through the ceiling or walls. Norway rats are burrowers, but roof rats, who are agile tree climbers, can often access openings in the eaves from nearby branches. They also like to hide out in bushes and ivy. Opinions seem to differ over whether you need to get on the roof to inspect a second-story house properly.

If you have a tile roof, it may be impossible to locate and plug up all the entry points under the curved tiles. That makes it essential to trim back overhanging or nearby branches at least two to three feet from the roof.

Norway rats like meat, grease and dog food, while roof rats favor grains, seeds, nuts and fruit.

"But both rats will eat anything a pet or human will eat," said LeBreton, so rodent-proof the stores of pet food in your garage.

"Bird food is the No. 1 food attractant," said Buckner. "But rats are mainly looking for a place to nest, a safe, dry, warm place. If they find food, that's just an added bonus."

They also like to chew on rubber hoses, as I discovered when I turned on my washing machine and found a pool of water around my feet. Dishwasher and car hoses are also on their list of things "to chew." Some speculate that rats can smell the water inside the hoses, but Anderson suspects they may be attracted to a salt-like substance in the rubber.

If you end up removing dead rats from snap traps yourself, it's imperative to time it right. Exterminators will tell you to throw them away in the trash, but won't likely mention that the corpse will begin to stink in a few days in warmer weather, even if you double bag them in the recommended ziplock bags.

We learned this the hard way, catching a pair of rats just after trash collection. In two days the garage began to reek and even keeping the can outdoors was not much better. Short of taking it out of the trash can - gag! - and burying the rotting corpses, our only alternative was spraying the can with "Ozium" four to five times a day. This did keep the odor down somewhat while we eagerly awaited trash day. If you do bury your prey, put them in a hole a foot or more deep, so other animals won't dig them up.

Finally, don't be fooled into thinking that simply catching a few rats will rid you of the problem without rodent-proofing the problem areas.

"If you just eliminate them, you will have other rats in the house within six months," predicted LeBreton. "Rats leave pheromone tracks that other rats are attracted to." Once they see that the other first batch has gone, these territorial creatures will move right in.

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