Rodent-Proof Your House

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How to rodent-proof your house. Mice in human habitats: The roof rat.
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The Norway rat.
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The house mouse.

Some helpful tips to rodent-proof your house.

Rats and mice do more damage inside our homes than any other mammal in the world. They spoil food, spread diseases and chew essential parts of the home such as electrical wires. Phenomenally fertile, a cute pair of mice living in your garage can grow into a gang of 20 or more in only a few months.

You don’t have to use poisons to keep rats and mice from ruining food or taking up residence in your attic. Instead, use the “seal up, trap up, clean up” strategy, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plus good common sense (see page 67 in this issue). It’s important to understand that not all rodents are pests. Numerous species of small rodents are native to North America, including insect-eating grasshopper mice. Most rodents prefer fields to human habitats, but the opposite is true of three species uniquely adapted to living around humans: the house mouse, the roof rat and the Norway rat. The better you know these troublemakers, the easier it will be to bring them under control.

Rodent-Proof Your House: Lining up Predators

Ted Hazen, a third-generation millwright in Norfolk, Virginia, says that cats historically have been the primary means of controlling mice in houses and in mills, where spilled grain is a constant rodent attractant. “A good mousing cat will eat 1,200 mice a year,” Hazen says. (See “Barn Cats” in the September/October 2006 issue of Grit.)

Hazen says some cats are more gifted mousers than others, but even great mousing cats can be intimidated by big rats. In California, Tom Stephan uses Jack Russell terriers to catch rats, sometimes in combination with his trained Saker falcon (native to Europe and Asia), which snatches up rats as the dogs flush them from their holes. “There is no other dog that’s better,” Stephan says. “They are a top-notch type-A hunting dog.” In addition to pawing through just about anything to get to a rat, Stephan says, his Jack Russells go for the kill. It sounds gory, but so is removing rats from snap traps.

If you keep a barn cat or rat-minded dog, never scold them for bringing you their prey. Cats and rodent-hunting dogs are great for preventing mice problems because they’re best at detecting intruders in their home territory. But don’t expect a cat to bring a large mouse population under control, and it may take more than one dog to get rid of rats.

Stephan’s best tip for preventing rodent problems is to host barn owls. “Get a barn owl nesting box or two if you have more than two acres.” Stephan has installed more than 1,500 barn owl boxes over the last decade and estimates that a pair of barn owls can capture up to 50 rodents a week. “The owls do an amazing job of hunting gophers, rats and mice,” he says.

Building Better Mousetraps

When rodent problems are too big for cats or dogs and you can’t host barn owls, trapping is the best option.

Using poisons is a shortsighted approach with undesirable side effects, such as the accidental poisoning of pets and other animals that eat the bait. Another problem is that you never know where a poisoned rodent will die. If it dies in a wall, you’re stuck with its smell for weeks.

Trapping is a better solution for serious rodent problems, but controversies rage over which methods are the most humane. Glue traps cause animals to die slowly, and are considered less humane than traditional snap traps, which provide a quick kill. Snap traps are inexpensive and widely available, though you have to check them daily. Some finesse is also needed in setting up the traps.

Multiple-capture live traps can capture several rodents at a time without harming them. But what do you do with the rodents you catch? In some states, it’s illegal to release them into the wild; in others, a license is needed. Even if it’s legal to release them, a freed rat’s story might not have a happy ending. Rodents accustomed to a cushy life in your barn may be quickly snapped up by predators when forced to fend for themselves in the wild.

Somehow, rodents know when a good habitat has been vacated, so repeat infestations are common. Especially as fall turns into winter, expect unwanted visitors to show up anywhere they can find food, water and shelter. Seal up well, and you won’t have to trap up, clean up or worry every time you hear a thump in the night.


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