Question. Mike, we need your help! Last winter a pair of rats lived in our compost bin. When spring came we put wire mesh around the bottom of the bin and clumps of used cat litter around the area and they left. Now they're back—in our compost bin and under a neighbor's shed. Our township put out traps with rat poison and killed a couple of them in the spring. We want to get rid of the rats but don't want to use poison. I think our cat would be able to get a few; do you have any suggestions about the rest? I checked in your archives and didn't see anything. Your faithful listener,
- ----Joyce in Havertown, PA
First, rats are too big and strong for cats; you'd need a 'ratting dog' like a Jack Russell terrier to try and take them on. And while rat poison placed inside a trap is fairly safe, such poison should never be used alone or in traps that might not secure the poisoned animal. Poisoned animals seek cover when the first symptoms hit, and often expire inside the walls or crawlspace of a home. The resulting smell is agonizing, and other—really nasty—pests are attracted to the carcass. Outdoors, poisoned animals can be taken by important predators like hawks and owls, poisoning those priceless creatures in the process.
Now—to try and keep rats at a distance:
- If open compost piles are positioned anywhere near a home, shed or other structure, don't use them to process the kind of food waste that will attract creatures like rats, mice, possums and raccoons. Most kitchen waste adds no nutrition to the finished compost and is better recycled through a worm bin anyway. If food scraps must go outdoors, use a metal compost tumbler or similar device that's sealed and sits up off the ground.
- Be aware that even food-free compost piles can be attractive to vermin for the heat and shelter they provide. If rats or other vermin are seen near your compost, set a 'live trap' nearby, baited with peanut butter. (Only use live capture traps, to avoid injuring non-target creatures like cats, birds and turtles.) Numerous brands are available, like Tomahawk and Havahart. But if a rat you capture, don't "have a heart"; euthanize the creature as humanely as possible. If you can't do it, engage the services of a local vet. Rats are age-old enemies of humankind and should not be released once captured.
- Don't leave dishes with pet food outdoors.
- Don't put your trash out in plastic bags; use metal cans with locking lids.
- Don't pile firewood up against the side of a home or shed; it creates a perfect place for rats to nest. I made this rookie mistake shortly after we moved into our place in the woods and paid dearly for it. It took me all winter to get them out of the house; every day filled with dread, terror and some of the worst personal guilt I have ever experienced.
- If you have a firewood pile anywhere outside, keep a live trap baited with peanut butter next to it and check it every day. (If you go away for more than a few days, disengage the trap to protect non-target creatures.)
- Don't leave ladders leaning up against the side of the house. That was my other big rookie homeowner mistake. I was doing a lot of gutter work and left the extension ladder up all the way to the roof overnight. They ran up the ladder, chewed through the soffit and thus began my winter of extreme discontent.
If rats do get into your house:
- Don't panic and use rat poison; those rats are guaranteed to die inside your walls.
- If you don't have indoor pets, use spring-type rat traps baited with peanut butter. Rat traps are big—about four times the size of a mouse trap, and work better when nailed onto a big flat board to keep them stable when they spring.
- Or use live capture traps baited with peanut butter.
- Keep at it; never assume that you've trapped them all. If you see signs that some are still around despite the presence of traps (chewed objects and/or their distinctive droppings) wash the traps or get new ones and handle them with clean gloves so that you don't leave any scent on them.
- If you can't personally do such things, hire a pest control professional. A real pro will be happy to work with traps alone—and will probably do a much better job than you could.
- And finally: Don't blame yourself and/or fall into a state of despair. These creatures arouse some of our most primal fears, and are smart, strong, agile and persistent. To defeat them, you need to keep your wits about you and be diligent.