Features and Occasionals

How to Foil a Rat

By Evan Teng

From traps and poison to terriers, botanicals and contraception: It’s a new world.

Rats chew. “They can chew through lead, cinderblock, brick, mortar, aluminum, wood, glass, vinyl and improperly cured concrete,” according to Diana Key who, at the time of reporting, worked as an environmental health supervisor at the Salt Lake County Health Department.

They can fit through openings as small as half an inch. Rat teeth are constantly growing and will eventually pierce the top of their mouths unless they wear them down—how’s that for built-in motivation? Rats also have a habit of digging holes, tunneling through yards and raiding food supplies. Rats, it seems, are everywhere these days.

On the rise

“There’s been an increase in the number of rat complaints received by the [Salt Lake County Health Department],” says Key. Local pest control companies like Pest Pro are also noticing an uptick in rat-removal business in the Avenues, downtown Salt Lake City, Sugar House, between Sugar House and Murray, Federal Heights, and Millcreek. Recent warm winters are a key attribute in the growing problem. Local populations of pigeons, some mice species, Oriental cockroaches and sewer roaches also got a boost from the mild weather.

The main culprit in all of this is most likely the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus. The far cuter Neotoma (aka woodrat or packrat), has also been seen in downtown neighborhoods.

According to Diana Key, Norway rats are rarely found in the wild, often preferring urban environments where it’s easier to satisfy their need for a high protein diet—think discarded pizza and half eaten sandwiches. Large for rats, these rodents can weigh over one pound. They’re also fierce fighters that can put up a good challenge when cornered. Those two factors combined make cats and birds of prey think twice about catching rat for dinner and instead turn the problem of extermination over to the humans.

For real: birth control for rats

Everyone knows the standard rat-killing routine: poison, sticky traps, snap traps. There’s even catch-and-release, though Dan Frandsen, owner of Wildlife X Team, a company specializing in humane wildlife removal, admits, “I try to talk customers out of it.”

Probably the most intriguing story of advancements in rat control regards a new, non-lethal liquid bait that completed test trials in New York City one year ago and received EPA approval in record time last month. Called ContraPest®, and developed by the Flagstaff, Arizona-based company SenesTech, the bait uses chemicals such as 4-vinylcyclohexene-diepoxide to neutralize a rat’s reproductive ability.

According to SenesTech, the bait can’t affect humans or animals other than rats. Designed specifically to attack rat reproduction, the chemical also becomes inactive and “environ -mentally neutral when excreted.” Female rats enter early menopause. Male rats’ sperm counts drop. The cumulative effect lasts for around 100 days. They live out their short year-long life cycle defending their territory until they pass away of natural causes without leaving scores of little rat babies to take their place.

SenesTech is now seeking state approval on a state-by-state basis. They received their okay from Utah last month (August 2016). ContraPest is a restricted-use product and will be available to licensed pest control professionals late this autumn. At least one animal rescue service from Utah has already contacted the company for the product, according to Ali Applin, vice president of business development.

ContraPest could soon put the hurt on rat populations everywhere, not just New York.

The yin and yang

Humans have rats to thank for the introduction of feline companions into our lives and for the practice of trash removal from our streets. On a more proactive level, we can also thank rats for helping to clear landmines. In Cambodia, rats, who it turns out have a great sense of smell, are being put to work sniffing out the TNT in landmines. The rats can detect as little as one ounce of TNT, and they can clear 200 square meters of land in about half an hour – the same job would take a human with a de-miner device about three days.

Rats can smell for drugs and even serve as rescue rats finding survivors after disasters.

Be proactive!

Whether you believe that rats deserve to live or die, the best thing to do is avoid inviting them into your home in the first place. “In order to thrive,” explains Diana Key, “rats need a fresh [accessible] water source and food.” Store pet food and pantry goods in glass or metal containers and use a covered trash can. Also, says Key, limit a rat’s hiding spaces.

Here are some things you can do to protect your backyard oasis:

  • Turn the compost pile on a regular basis (or compost food scraps in a closed bin).
  • Pick up fallen fruit.
  • If you have hens, clean their house frequently—yes, besides chicken feed, rats eat feces.
  • Consider a terrier breed if you are looking to adopt a dog. (See sidebar.)

The second step is to block off entry points to buildings. Even though rats can chew their way through almost anything, you don’t need to leave the door open.

  • Use metal screens over chimney and dryer vents.
  • Make sure the building’s foundation and roof soffits are well maintained.
  • Keep window screens in good repair and install door sweeps if there is a gap under any exterior doors.
  • Try a natural rodent repellent. Rats have poor eyesight, but an exceptional sense of smell. Fresh Cab® botanical rodent repellent uses essential oils that smell pleasant to humans but are offensive to rodents.
  • If you suspect you may have a rat problem, nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. Call a pest control company and inquire about the new rat birth control, ContraPest (SenesTech.com).

Every little bit counts. Employ these habits and tactics, and rats will be more likely to avoid your area. At least these practices can limit the need for traps and poison if you have an infestation. Either way, fast action is the most humane action.

“They will find it less attractive,” says Lora Lee Dreibelbis, environmental health supervisor for the County; and hopefully they won’t just find what they’re looking for at your neighbor’s house. After all, she warns, “Rats are a community problem.”

Evan Teng is a staff writer at the Daily Utah Chronicle, the University of Utah student newspaper. While Evan does not have a fondness for rats, he loves large animals, especially horses. He has spent many hours volunteering at the South Valley Large Animal Clinic and also at Camp Kostopulos.

What does a no-kill farm animal sanctuary do?

If you think you have a rodent problem living in the city, imagine what Faith Ching deals with on her Salt Lake Valley farm. Ching Farm Rescue and Sanctuary is a safe place for farm animals and livestock to live out their days and with all that straw and hay and animal feed it’s also a place that mice love to congregate. But not rats! Why? Faith says it’s because there’s no running water at Ching Farm. Rats are known to travel along water corridors and the creeks that surface here and there throughout Salt Lake are major conduits for rats. Have running water nearby? It’ll be hard to keep rat populations at bay for long.

As for the mice, says Faith, there are a handful of tricks to keeping their numbers low, but good luck making them disappear. Hanging chicken feeders help, she says, as does keeping extra feed in closed bins. At Ching Farms they don’t believe in killing animals and Faith doesn’t bother with relocating mice with Havahart traps. Instead she lets nature and the predator/prey relationship run its course.

“We do have some mousers. Sometimes cats are dumped out here and we feed and spay and neuter them and they help with the mouse problem.”

And, says Faith, the chickens do their part as well. “The first time I saw a chicken catch and eat a mouse I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Faith. “When you see the back legs and tail sticking out of their beak, and they’ll fight over a mouse, it’s so weird.”

—Katherine Pioli

Terriers to the rescue!

Terriers are a “feisty, energetic” breed according to the American Kennel Club (and most terrier owners). It’s a temperament that served them and their masters well for hundreds of years, though less so today as when these little dogs still practiced the job they were bred for, hunting small creatures.

In England, the Hunt terrier ran with society’s elite. When social clubs went chasing red fox on horseback, the hound’s job was to track the animal while the terrier’s was to flush the fox from its den. Terriers also hunted rats and were valuable working animals around kennels and stables and on board ships. In Spain, terriers did their work in wineries and in the United States, prior to the widespread use of chemical pesticides, terriers were used on most American farms. (The Wizard of Oz’s Toto was a Cairn terrier.)

Recently some terriers have stepped off their show dog pedestals and back into the working world. In New York City and New Jersey, terrier owners interested in maintaining the working skills of their dogs formed the Ryder’s Alley Trencher-fed Society (RATS). They make nightly rounds with their dogs to local trash bins where they sometimes catch up to 70 rats a night.

On the other side of the country, in California where certain rat poisons are now banned for use by anyone other than a licensed pest exterminator, Jordan Reed and his kennel of terriers are traveling to chicken farms, grain silos and vineyards around the state sometimes killing over 100 rats in a single day.

Here in Salt Lake we don’t know anyone offering to rent out terriers for rat control, yet, but terrier owners probably have found that their own yards are pretty well taken care of, sometimes a bit too well. It’s not just rats that terriers will go after. All things small may be up for grabs including pet hamsters and gerbils, according to one tragic story from my neighborhood. Chicken harassment is also a possibility. Terriers would not have a long history as working farm dogs if they couldn’t be trained. However, until you know the dog, unleash a terrier with caution.

—Katherine Pioli


This article was originally published on September 1, 2016.