How to Get Rid of Rats
18–21 minutes to read | Updated for 2018
Though the terms “rats” and “mice” are often used together, these rodents are actually quite different.
These differences play out in everything from their appearance to their behavior. If you’ve seen a rat in your home or on your property, it’s helpful to know which type you’re dealing with as you work to eliminate and exclude this pest.
Rats Versus Mice
- Rats may grow to as large as 15 inches, while mice typically reach 5-8 inches.
- Rats have hairless, scaly tails, but mice have large, floppy ears and thin, hairy tails.
- The face of a rat features short whiskers and a blunt snout. Mice have longer whiskers and a triangular snout.
Overall, rodents comprise over 2,000 species of warm-blooded nuisance animals including rats, mice, and squirrels. These pests are found all over the globe wherever there is plentiful access to food and water. For your needs as a homeowner, let’s discuss the most common types found in the U.S.
Common Species of Rats
Though many species infest cities, towns, and areas around the world, two kinds of rats are predominant in North America: the Norway rat and the roof rat.
Norway Rat (AKA Sewer Rat or Brown Rat)
Brought to the U.S. from Europe in the late 18th century, the Norway rat is now found throughout the interior of the nation, from the West to the East (except in coastal areas). In a building or home, Norway rats will always stay close to ground level, preferring holes near the foundation, woodpiles, or other debris in which to make their homes. Away from structures, these rodents are often found near garbage dumps, sewers, and fields. Adults live roughly one year and build colonies. They will reproduce throughout the year, but the breeding peaks in spring and fall.
How To Identify:
- Measures 13-15 inches and carries girth at 7-18 ounces when adult
- Reddish, grayish-brown, or black with a gray underside
- Inactive during daylight hours
- Will eat nearly anything found near discarded food. Also known to eat fish, poultry, mice, birds, and small reptiles.
- Each female may produce an average of 8-12 pups per litter and 4-7 litters each year
- DIY measures may be attempted for exclusion
- Call a pest control professional if you encounter a Norway rat
Roof Rats (AKA Gray-Bellied Rat)
As the more agile and acrobatic of the two main rat species, this type may gain entry to trees, your attic, ceiling, or other above-ground spaces. Because they don’t weather cooler temperatures, roof rats are found most often in coastal climates. Like the Norway rat, this kind is nocturnal, with peak activity occurring at dawn or at dusk. This means that sound heard during the daytime might indicate a large population.
How To Identify:
- 7-10 inches long and 5-9 ounces
- Grayish-black to solid black fur
- Eats fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts
- Each female produces 5-8 pups per litter and 4-6 litters per year
- Patience and multiple placements are needed for DIY methods
- Call a pest control professional if you encounter a roof rat
Dangers of Disease
Rats can courier a number of serious diseases to livestock and humans in two ways. First, they may act as transport for fleas and ticks to enter your home with a variety of parasites. Second, rats may carry diseases on their own through saliva, urine, and feces. These illnesses include:
- Murine typhus
- Salmonellosis (food poisoning)
- Ratbite fever
- Plague (more common from roof rats than Norway rats)
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Step 1: Know the Species
Each has its preferences. Norway rats stay lower to the ground, while roof rats house themselves in higher places – sometimes in overhead areas. Roof rats eat meals at different sites and under cover of shelter, which will affect your bait-and-trap strategy. This species will attempt to winter inside your home to escape chilly temperatures. So when you know the behavior of the rat, you can move ahead with your inspection plans.
Step 2: Check for Signs of Damage
Rats can cause real damage to structures by burrowing, biting, and gnawing at insulation, wiring, and wood. Over time, their efforts can produce gashes and holes that allow entry for more rodents and pests. Check your home for these signs of damage and take the following steps as needed:
- Seal holes and cracks greater than ¼ inch on the interior and exterior
- Install weatherstripping on the bottom of exterior doors
- Trim branches and limbs from trees and bushes that provide a bridge to your home
Step 3: Find Their Homes
Burrows or nests are sure signs of a rat’s home or entrance to a colony. Gnaw marks give indications of a rat’s activities, and a large number of droppings may signal an infestation. (Always use a surgical mask when removing rat feces.) These visuals provide clues about the species and the extent of the problem for your home.
Step 4: Build a Plan
Taking DIY steps to exclude rodents from your home is useful, but rat populations can expand quickly by several dozen – especially if an adult female has built a home inside your house. Given a rat’s ability to spread disease, this may be the time to call professional help.
Weather & Rats
People may be surprised to find Norway rats and roof rats living in the same structure, yet that behavior is quite common as temperatures cool later in the year.
Roof rats are given to higher temperatures, which explains why they’re overwhelmingly found in coastal areas. The heat becomes a catalyst for daily activity and reproduction. As you would expect, cooler climates do not agree with roof rats and send them scurrying for shelter.
The Norway rat breeds all year long across the U.S. (except near the coasts), though spring and fall are peak breeding seasons. Climate extremes in summer and winter tend to reduce reproductive activity. This holds true mainly for outdoor colonies.
If you opt for a DIY method to exclude rodents, two inexpensive yet attractive options would include metal flashing and hardware cloth. Flashing can seal gutters, depriving rats of an obvious entry or exit point, and ¼-inch wire mesh offers an effective closure for vent openings.
Rotting or decaying wood
Long branches touching the exterior of the home
Recent years have brought a new surge of rat infestations in some major American cities. In 2016, USA Today reported increases in rat populations in New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, DC, with the biggest increase noted in Chicago, where the rat population is increasing on average by 70% a year. That same year, New York received more than 41,000 complaints of rodent activity. The effects can be vast, including higher rates of depression with residents in low-income areas where rats are more prevalent than other parts of cities.
With statistics like these in mind, cities are bolstering the resources they’re deploying against rat infestations:
Chicago is increasing the number of city-employed rodent technicians and experimenting with new ideas to help the Chicago Transit Authority reduce rats in public areas.
Boston has started a 311 line specifically for reporting rats. The city has also worked with MIT and Harvard to test an approach using dry ice that seems, at least from initial reports, to be working.
Cities are also cracking down on residents who contribute to the problem. Chicago fines homeowners up to $500 for leaving pet droppings or garbage in their yards, with other cities following suit. Some homeowners are unhappy about these efforts, but many are taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting on the city.
Risk of Disease
Rats in public places are obviously a public health issue. But in the home, they’re actually an even bigger problem.
Rats do not have to bite in order to cause illness; mere exposure to rat waste is the cause of many debilitating diseases. Rat urine, for example, is one of the leading causes of leptospirosis, a condition that can cause severe kidney and liver damage among humans.
Other diseases that are specifically carried by rats include, but are not limited to:
- Salmonellosis – a disease that can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, intense vomiting and fever. Symptoms can begin as soon as 12 hours after exposure.
- Weil’s disease – a severe form of leptospirosis, caused by the same bacteria. If leptospirosis reaches this stage, you will likely have to be hospitalized. Severe reactions may occur in the lungs, the heart, and the brain, if the bacteria reaches those organs.
- Rat bite fever – a disease which can be passed to humans from rat urine or mucus. It is also known as epidemic arthritic erythema, streptobacillosis, streptobacillary fever, sodoku, and spirillary fever. Symptoms may include chills, fever and intense vomiting.
- The plague – which can be spread through airborne contact in extremely unsanitary areas. The bubonic plague, one of the world’s longest-lasting rodent-borne illnesses, is only one manifestation of this disease.
- Hantavirus – a disease serious enough to require a report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if contracted. If it progresses to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, it can be fatal.
If you’ve identified a rat infestation on your property, there are several methods you can use to help turn rats away. But as always, it’s much easier to prevent an infestation than to treat one. Try these habits on a daily basis whether or not you’re already dealing with rodents.
Mitigate Odors and Food Waste
Rats usually find their way into places that provide feeding opportunities. The smell from your garbage may attract them, as will the odor from old food in your cupboards or refrigerator.
- Make sure that you always immediately throw out any food that is past its expiration date.
- Check to see that pantry doors and trash can lids close properly.
- Keep an eye on pet food. Remove anything left in open dishes once your pet has finished feeding, and store any food in airtight containers when it isn’t in use.
- Only eat in specified areas. If your family frequently eats in bedrooms, food will inevitably fall behind headboards and under beds, attracting rats.
- When you are eating, try to use place mats as much as possible so they can easily be wiped down afterwards.
- Try to sweep and wipe up the area where you’ve eaten after you’re done so there aren’t any leftover crumbs or residue.
Sanitize Your Home
Many of the odors that draw rats come from dust and food droppings that find their ways into the corners of your home. For this reason, it’s important to take the proper steps toward sanitizing your entire home, and not just the kitchen.
- Sanitize your home by regularly vacuuming and dusting.
- Make sure that you move your furniture and get in the corners of your home to clean up all of the old food and sticky dust that may attract them.
- You also need to protect your home from your neighbors’ sanitation problems. If your neighbors are messy or smelly, you may want to have a talk with them to make sure any odors or trash aren’t making their way over to your property.
Rat-Proof Your House
If you can successfully guard your house from rodents, you’ll never have to worry about an infestation as long as you keep up with maintenance. Whether you’ve just entered a new home or heard of a nearby infestation, it’s important to take the time and complete the following steps toward rat-proofing your home.
- Start by inspecting the foundation of your home. Look for gaps or holes that may be large enough for a rat to enter. You can block off those entry points with expandable foam or mesh.
- Once those areas are secured, check your doors and windows. This is especially important at the change of seasons, when doors and windows may warp and leave gaps large enough for rodents can crawl into. Metal kickplates are a good solution for these, as well as insulation treatment.
- Next, inspect your roof. If your vents, shingles, or chimneys allow access to your attic, you may have a problem: roof rats can be especially difficult to eradicate once they’ve gotten in there. Cap the chimney when it is not being used, fix any holes that might be in your vents, and make sure your roof is in good repair in general.
- In the same vein as inspecting your roof, you’ll want to inspect your basement if you have one. If there are any holes or cracks around your plumbing, these can be easy and covert areas for rats to get into your home. Make sure these small openings are all sealed up and that you also have proper sealant on your basement door.
- Consider using a metal rodent guard if you have any wire lines or pipelines that come from the outside into the house. You can also block holes with a mixture of steel wool and mortar or caulk.
- You can further protect your home by setting up a rat poison barrier around your own property. The best rat repellents on the market usually contain chemicals with odors that rats can’t stand. These can come in a liquid spray form or granules that are then used to create a perimeter around your home, within your garden, and near any rodent holes.
Natural Rat Repellents
Natural repellents are also an easy way to turn your home into a rat-free sanctuary. There are many products rats tend to stay away from, and chances are you already have at least one in your cabinets:
- Ammonia – Rats stay away from the smell.
- Bay leaf – The chemical compound of bay leaves can be lethal to rats.
- Peppermint oil – This can be distilled in water and sprayed around the house.
- Castor oil – This works similar to how citronella works to repel mosquitoes.
- Baby powder – The chemical compound can intoxicate rats and help you trap them.
- Instant mashed potatoes – If rats eat dehydrated mashed potatoes, the flakes will expand in their stomachs until they die of bloating.
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A rat infestation can make you feel hopeless and can completely alter your daily life. Do-it-yourself treatments can restore a feeling of control, sometimes even at little cost. Luckily, there are so many different methods on the market that can be used together to eradicate a problem.
Traps are the best-known means for getting rats out of a home. However, you have to use traps wisely and always with caution in order to make sure they’ll be effective. The following is a list of some trapping guidelines:
- Use a large number of traps.
- Use traps designed specifically for rats. Mouse traps are too small to trap rats, but they can easily be confused while you’re at the store or shopping online. Many people are also tempted to use the same solutions for rats if they’ve had a mice infestation in the past. However, rats and mice are different pests and should be treated as such if you’re dealing with an infestation.
- Place the traps in the most infested areas. These will likely be dark corners, behind big appliances and wherever you see droppings. You can also put rat traps on tree limbs that overlap the house to prevent roof rat invasions, and you can put them in your attic as well.
Follow these guidelines with any type of rat trap you choose to use. While you’re shopping for the best rat traps available, you’ll notice they have different properties that can be better suited to your different needs
Snap Traps/Spring Traps
The best known types of traps, these currently come in two varieties. The traditional trap (usually made of wood and steel wire) contains a spring-loaded bar that snaps down when a rat removes bait from a trigger. A newer, plastic version bears a set of sharp jaws snap shut when triggered.
These traps consist of a cage with a spring-loaded door that captures a rat inside when they remove bait from a trigger or walk across a trigger plate.
A type of live trap, glue traps consist of a plastic or wooden platform coated with adhesive that is laid out (and sometimes baited) in places where rats are known to travel, such as basements, pantries, and attics, in order to entice rats to get stuck on them. These tend not to be true live traps, as it is often impossible to remove a rat once it is trapped, and trapped rats will eventually die of dehydration. This also means that unlike most other traps, glue traps can only be used once.
These traps work like cages, but when the bait entices rats to enter, these traps detect the rat and send a lethal electric shock into the cage.
Most rodent traps require you to use some type of bait to attract rats to them. Many products that are sold as bait also contain poison, so you may want to put some thought into the bait you use, especially since the bait on traps is often sitting out within reach of children and pets. To bait a trap with non-toxic baits, you can use anything edible. Some popular and effective baits include:
- Peanut butter
- Fresh and dried fruits
If you don’t have any natural bait available, or would rather not leave food out to attract other pest problems, there are many great chemical rat baits on the market with the options of containing poisons are not. There are also different receptacles that you can buy to place your natural or chemical bait inside.
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Usually made from hardened plastic, bait stations allow homeowners to place bait in open spaces without having to worry about pets or other people gaining access, especially if the bait contains poison. They are enclosed with rat-sized openings to allow rodents to access the bait. These usually lock closed with a special key to make the poison even more difficult to access.
Bait trays usually come pre-prepared and can be purchased in hardware stores. They are not enclosed, however, so they should only be used in spaces inaccessible to pets or children.
If you’re picking up rat poison at a store, be sure to read the labels so you know whether it also contains baiting properties. Storebought poisons come in a variety of forms, so thoroughly read the instructions so you know how effective they’ll be for your situation and whether or not they’re safe to use around your family. The bait and poison available at stores will usually be in pellet form and can also be bought in bulk in order to refill trays or bait stations.
These fast-acting neurotoxins need, more than most poisons, to be kept out of the way of children and pets, but they are especially effective.
Vitamin D-Based Poisons
These poisons (and similar ones based on other vitamins) induce a buildup of fat-soluble vitamins that eventually lead to a fatal overdose. These are slower-acting, but can still present a danger to kids and household pets.
Fumarin and Warfarin-Based Poisons
These types of poisons act as anticoagulants, preventing rats’ blood from clotting. These are the slowest-acting poisons in general use, and can take repeated feeding to be effective.
Wherever you decide to place poisons, rodents will feed off of them and go elsewhere to die. Ideally, the best place to put them will always be outside in order to prevent any rats from dying in the walls or the attic of your home. However, you can still use them inside as long as you periodically check for dead rats or even call in professional help to perform routine inspections.
Don’t ever try to take care of a rat problem yourself if your level of infestation is already causing you or your family any health issues, whether they’re physical or emotional.
If your own efforts don’t see results, it may be time to call in a pest control service. Professionals will put the best rodent control practices and technology in service of ridding your house of rats and mice. Pay attention to the advice of your rat removal/rat control expert if he or she tells you that you have a worse problem than you think, and take note of any cleaning or prevention treatments they recommend. If you follow your list of preventative steps while a professional is using highly-rated treatment methods, you can eradicate your problem together in no time.
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