Help us kill rats without collateral damage
November 8, 2012 12:12 PM   Subscribe

How to kill rats that don't live in my property without killing squirrels, pets, children or neighbors?

NOTE: this is a "how-to" question, not a "should I" question, though I am considering that separately and am not decided. I am gathering information, not forming a definite plan for action.

My wife and I just moved into a small rental house in a pretty dense hillside neighborhood in the East Bay (Albany/El Cerrito/Richmond area). We are expecting a baby in less than 3 months. There is a nice yard with some citrus trees and rose bushes, but it's generally well-maintained and clear. Our next-door neighbors' yard is not clear or maintained at all. They have fruit trees that just deposit fruit on the ground, and there are large palms from which dead fronds are not removed. There are also large woodpiles in their yard directly against their house.

They have a pretty serious infestation of roof rats/black rats/rattus rattus. The rats live in their fruit trees, run through their gutters, and scurry across the top of the shared fence as well as across a cross board on our side of that fence (there are holes on either side of the span they go in and out of). The closest fruit tree of ours to this fence area is a fig tree that is still producing fruit right now, and there are very clear nibbles/chunks bitten out of some of the figs, though these could definitely be from squirrels. I can confirm that there are at least 3 individual adults, and I am pretty sure I saw a fourth (to be clear, I mean that I spotted these distinct individuals at the same time, so I'm sure I'm not double-counting the same couple rats over and over).

This is alarming because it seems to me (I am not an expert) that black rats are a legitimate concern for spreading diseases such as salmonella to humans on a level that squirrels, pigeons and other more typical urban wildlife are not. Also, rational or not, my wife and I both have a strong aversion to sharing our living space with rats and in terms of municipal laws/codes that aversion seems to have some bit of legal standing.

Soooo... We called our landlord, she called the neighbors, and the neighbors freaked. They like the rats and think we need to respect the rats' right to exist. The landlord agrees with us that this is a problem that needs to be solved. Landlord then (not at our request) contacted the city directly, which caused even greater freaking out from the neighbor. They won't talk to my wife or me and show no indication of being willing to cooperate.

Now, I hope that this is resolved reasonably. I hope that the neighbor can start keeping their yard in a way that doesn't harbor rats, or become more active about getting rid of their existing infestation. But I am afraid that if they don't the city will kill these rats using poisons or methods that aren't good for the neighborhood, my dog, or our future kid. Therefore I would like to have a backup plan, if one is even possible, to dispatch this existing population quickly and effectively before it gets out of control.

So that leads to my question: How do we kill these motherfucking rats effectively without collateral damage?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly to Pets & Animals (40 answers total)
I know this questions sounds callous. I don't like to idea of killing animals, and I am not a terrible person. I personally don't think that live-trapping an animal considered a public health nuisance and releasing it near someone else's yard is a particularly ethical solution, but I am open to non-fatal approaches to this problem if it sounds like any exist.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:14 PM on November 8, 2012

It doesn't sound callous. This are not domesticated, vet-attended rats so... whatever.

Call Rent-o-kill. They will give you bait boxes which are a) only accessible to rodents, b) filled with tasty bait for rodents. Put them on your property at the fence line or below the trees or wherever the person tells you to put them.

The rats eat the bait and then go off to die deeply, deeply unpleasant deaths somewhere else.

To encourage that, make sure there are ZERO open sources of water on your property. (We don't want to discuss why.) That means gutters drain cleanly, outlet spouts are firmly screened and clear, hoses do not drip and turn off at the wall, etc.

This is not quick in that it is not magic. You may need to repeatedly re-bait the boxes. The bait is available at the hardware store. You should allow six to eight weeks for repeated baiting to reduce the population. It is a native population, though and you are not likely to be able to eradicate it.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:21 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

You are 100% correct about the rats. Your neighbors are freaks, you don't need to speak with them. Gross.

The city is an excellent place to start as there are codes and the city can enforce them. They need to keep up with the yard, they can't let fruit rot on the ground. They can't let their trees die and in general they have to keep their property up to community standards.

Do they own their property or do they rent. If they rent, THEIR landlord is going to freak!

You can't put out poison or traps, that might harm other animals that aren't vermin (or who are cute vermin, like squirrels, chipmunks, etc.)

I'd call a "Critter Removal Service" we have lots of them in the south.

Find out what you can do on your end to make sure that your neighbors right to live with rats doesn't interfere with your right not to get the Hanta Virus or the Plague.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:23 PM on November 8, 2012

We've had serious rat problems in my neighborhood, and the city got pretty agressive, finally. In my parents' neighborhood they'll fine you if you haven't picked up fruit or cleand woodpiles, too. My city also bought people good trash cans and traps, it got so bad. The problem isn't Gone in my urban neighborhood since then, but it's a lot better.

The big black baited rat traps - I presume they have poison inside because they're not snap traps - seem to be the go-to trap here in the Boston area. I see them on the waterfront and my neighborhood all the time, and I also see squirrels (and the opening is too small for chickens or dogs), so I'm guessing they're pretty safe for other animals.
posted by ldthomps at 12:26 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The rats eat the bait and then go off to die deeply, deeply unpleasant deaths somewhere else.

Yes, they go off to die in people's houses, walls, yards, and other places where they're now a dead, rotting nuisance AND they can be eaten by people's pets and/or other animals. I don't have a better idea right now, but poison is NOT the answer.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:26 PM on November 8, 2012 [8 favorites]

These are what we use at work (historical building in a heavily wooded state park). They work extremely well and are very low mess. Because we dispose of the bodies by literally just throwing them on a hill near our building, they also tend to attract ravens and raptors to the area which also help, though I'm sure that's probably not what you'll be doing.

Unfortunately they're pretty pricey, and they do run into the possibility of catching squirrels too I guess (I don't know how likely squirrels are to go after a bait like peanut butter or something). Maybe just a couple in likely entry points to your home for peace of mind? (Or if you start catching them you can definitely prove there is a problem. I was catching one a day in each of them in our office at work for a while, so I don't doubt their efficacy.)
posted by primalux at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2012

Aside from the corpse-in-the-wall problem (which I am not dismissing) would dead rats that had been killed by poison also present a danger to dogs or cats that ate or licked them? I have a dog and several neighbors have indoor/outdoor cats.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2012

Ignatius J. Reilly: Absolutely. They will also poison wildlife that eats them (birds, etc).
posted by primalux at 12:31 PM on November 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes, poisoned rats, if eaten by household pets, will cause illness and possible death in your dogs and cats, so don't do this.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:32 PM on November 8, 2012

Since poisoned rats wandering off to die are a big concern for you, I recommend that you get yourself a pellet rifle with a scope and play sniper on those rats. This is the option I would find most satisfying, and it does not pose a risk of poison to your dog or child. I recommend a .22 caliber and you will need a scope because of the very small kill zone. Be sure to practice on targets before hunting your prey.

Happy sniping!
posted by Tanizaki at 12:32 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, they go off to die in people's houses, walls, yards, and other places

I'm pretty sure that they don't try to go inside houses, because they know there's no water there. A dead rat outside is not much of a nuisance, certainly not compared to a live one. But I'm not sure how you can ensure that poison doesn't get squirrels. The risk to other animals varies depending on the poison you use. See here.

I would call a professional, have them bring baited traps, put them around your property outside, and leave it to them to collect and kill the rats.

And, yes, your neighbours are crazy and you should kill these rats, unless you want them looking for shelter in your roof one day.
posted by Dasein at 12:33 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Since they are passing through on your side of the fence, you have an opportunity to put a rat trap there. (Not a mouse trap, rat traps are bigger. They can also break fingers / noses / etc. so keep children and pets away from them, if they are the traditional type.) You might want to get a couple of different types of traps and rotate through them; when you get a rat with one kind of trap, switch designs until you get another one, etc.

Rats are not stupid and they will probably eventually catch on to the fact that coming on your side of the fence = death, which is really the goal. Even if you use poison you are unlikely to eradicate the population, but with traps you can keep them out of your yard. In this case, the rats' intelligence works for you rather than against you.

Let the city deal with the rat problem on the other side of the fence.

Baiting / poisoning is fine in subway tunnels but it's really not something that you want to do near a residence. (And it's inhumane.) Exterminators do it because it's low-effort on their part, though, and dealing with carcasses that get stuck in walls or attics isn't their problem. A hundred live rats is better than one dead rat in an enclosed space where you can't get to it — just take my word on this one. And that's setting aside the risk to predator animals that might eat a rat that's dying from poison, which includes both dogs/cats and other natural predators.

Also, I've heard anecdotally that poison isn't particularly effective until you cut off the rats' existing food supplies, as the baits really aren't that delicious (apparently) and they are creatures of habit. Since your neighbors aren't cooperative it seems unlikely to be very effective. Better to just give them a sharp lesson that venturing onto your side of the fence will be fatal.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:37 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

One note about the air rifle approach (which can be wildly effective): this may cause your neighbors to freak out even more (ie., call the cops and claim you have an assault rifle and have threatened them), so super-beware.

Nevertheless, if you have a suitable backstop and you're a halfway reasonable shot, it's collateral-damage-free.

Or trap them, and then figure out wtf to do with the now-occupied trap.
posted by aramaic at 12:39 PM on November 8, 2012

Take pictures, call the city. If the city doesn't move on it, call a local newspaper; this is the sort of story that local news outlets eat up.

Also, consider getting an outdoor cat.
posted by DWRoelands at 12:44 PM on November 8, 2012

Can anyone use their weekly AskMefi question to ask the following: "How do I convince my wife to let me buy an air rifle and shoot rats from our roof?" Would really appreciate it.

One note on the cat suggestion: these rats are large and in charge. The size of a beefy squirrel. I can't imagine any but the most badass housecat could kill one.

Thanks for all of these suggestions. Has anyone used standard snap traps with any success for rats? I think I could position them in a place that my dog can't access.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:48 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I live in the country and I'm not even allowed to shoot my spring powered .17 pellet gun (which I bought to shoot rats) within 1000 feet of someone else's domicile. No air rifles (including Airsoft) either.

I'm pretty sure varminting with a .22 isn't going to be okay in the East Bay. Or with any type of firearm, including air rifles. :(

And there's plenty of water in a house. The walls are full of pipes. Enough to tempt a rat dying of warfarin poisoning anyway.

Unfortunately you're looking at snap traps and making more complaints. I've never had luck with the rat zapper, but it's worth a shot.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:49 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're in Oakland, California; do NOT start shooting anything.

Just get an exterminator. Rat poisons, etc., are an enormous chore, especially because everything is much bigger than when it's little mice that can live in teacups.
posted by SMPA at 12:52 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

We also put out snap traps but they always just end up triggered, with the bait gone, and no rat in sight. We have never caught a single rat with them. It's probably worth a shot though, because they are definitely the least expensive option.
posted by primalux at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just mentioning this, but taking care of rats like this is what terriers of the Jack Russel kind are bred to do. Just saying.
posted by pickypicky at 12:57 PM on November 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

BB gun/rifle.
posted by n1c35h07 at 12:57 PM on November 8, 2012

this is what terriers of the Jack Russel kind are bred to do

Also Cairn Terriers, but you don't need to take an exterminator for daily walks for the next 15 years.
posted by Dasein at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Please forgive the slight derail, but, since you are going to be living there a while: whatever your feelings/beliefs about the rats, when you speak to (or of) your neighbors' relationship, please be respectful of their affection for the creatures. They are a known and definite health hazard, babies in ghettoes get bitten by rats, they were responsible for a plague or two -- sometimes we have to kill to survive, and it's painful. It may be that a little (OK, a lot) of empathy will eventually lead to less obstruction from your neighbors. Also, as you know, they are probably feeling really awful. There's no "Sorry your outdoor pets have to die" section in the Hallmark store, but peoples' feelings for animals, all kinds of animals, can go pretty deep.

And, one possibly-helpful suggestion: if you could somehow relocate some snakes, or foster a snake population, they'll eat baby rats. Probably won't do enough fast enough for you, but it's a thought. Also, if the relevant agency cleans up the yard generally, it might impact the population.
posted by amtho at 1:09 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding air rifle. This was what we did after we came to the same conclusion about not being able to use poison a few years ago. My husband would sit in the backyard from like 9pm-11pm every night and I would occasionally hear a shot. (We kept a tally for a while, but I gave up at 23 kills.)

Advice if you go the air rifle route: get the most powerful air rifle you can, to minimize your chances of wounded rats scurrying away in pain. Get a headlamp with a green light so you can see the rats but they have a hard time seeing you. Get a sheet of plywood and paint it white and prop it up as your backdrop to make them easier to see (and to prevent shooting into your neighbors' yard). Get a comfortable chair, and a bottle of beer. Peanut butter seems to be good bait.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:26 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, we probably would have gotten a terrier if we didn't already have a dog that hated other dogs, but they are also not exactly good around babies and toddlers, so I don't know if that would be a good option for you.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:27 PM on November 8, 2012

How do I convince my wife to let me buy an air rifle and shoot rats from our roof?

This is easy. "Honey, you have (a) me with my air rifle (b) poisoned rat corpses or (c) the rats of NIMH cavorting and breeding next door and one day moving onto our parcel. Pick one."

It will depend on municipal ordinances, but yeah, firing an air rifle in your municipality may be against the law. If so, it would not concern me if I were in your position, but YMMV. I don't know how you would get caught. It's not like it has a loud report. Your neighbors wouldn't be able to hear it.

If an air rifle is a problem, perhaps a blow gun?
posted by Tanizaki at 1:31 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

NB: rat-catching dogs are frequently also squirrel-catching dogs and OP specifically states s/he wants to avoid squirrel casualties.
posted by workerant at 1:43 PM on November 8, 2012

Get cats.
posted by n1c35h07 at 1:49 PM on November 8, 2012

I am unlikely to acquire another dog at this point. My current dog is actually an OK squirrel killer, but the rats are almost never at ground level and she doesn't really chill in the yard without us yet (she's always been an apartment dog and i still just warming to this being "her" yard). I don't have a huge problem with killing squirrels, but they are more numerous than the rats and not a threat to my family's health or safety, so spending a bunch of time and money killing squirrels with rat-death devices seems like something I should aim to avoid.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 1:52 PM on November 8, 2012

When we had a rat problem, we used poison, and had no problems whatsoever with them dying in the wall cavities or whatever. The poison either makes them seek out water, or become slightly demented and they avoid their usual spots, so they go off and die somewhere not inside your cavities (I can't remember, but I think different products do both). Snap traps are way more humane, but pulling a dead rat out of a trap is pretty intimidating.
posted by thylacinthine at 1:56 PM on November 8, 2012

I should perhaps have clarified -- rather than a killing trap, I meant you should use a capture trap. That way if you accidentally catch a squirrel, you can release it, but if you capture a rat you can kill it (place occupied trap in water, wait, remove trap, empty trap into trashcan). This requires you to be fairly OK with killing in a more up-close-and-personal way, and note that if your neighbors notice a trapped rat they may try to trespass to free it.
posted by aramaic at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

More info: I am fine with disposing of dead rats, removing them from traps, etc. I am not OK drowning something. I actually had pet rats as a kid and I have to admit that these black rats are more cute than the evil brown rats I used to see on CTA in Chicago.

I know this is arbitrary, but I would like to avoid execution-style killing.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2012

We had an outdoor rat issue because we live in a very very urban house with neighbours who can be unreliable about both green maintenance and rubbish removal. Yay.

We got a single Rent-o-Kill trap for our tiny yard and baited it. We sealed all outdoor water sources. We also (and sorry I forgot this) sealed all access to the house we could find, ie chinks in the exterior, with cement. Our bait was picked up and we had no rats dying indoors.

Eventually, the bait stopped being picked up, and that's what you want - it indicates no rats remain (or very very smart rats, I guess).
posted by DarlingBri at 2:03 PM on November 8, 2012

I don't know how likely squirrels are to go after a bait like peanut butter or something

Squirrels with definitely eat peanut butter. That's how I got the horrid little beasts out of my attic.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:05 PM on November 8, 2012

If you're open to deterrent options, one thing you might attempt is sprinkling predator scent around your property line. Cats' effectiveness in the rodent-control arena is due not only to their ability to actually catch things, but also to the fact that (unless they're experiencing some sort of bizarre toxoplasmosis-induced trance) rodents tend to flee from the scent of cat urine. So if you know someone with a dirty litterbox in need of servicing you might see about acquiring some of the used kitty-grit. For a slightly more sanitary option you can actually buy dried coyote urine granules at a lot of hardware/gardening stores...I got some of this for my SO's parents to help keep feral cats out of their garden and it seemed reasonably user-friendly, as such things go.
posted by aecorwin at 2:56 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My neighbours poisoned rats in CA and they all walked over and died in the middle of our garage floor. Not only did we have to be super vigilant about the dogs (formerly encouraged to kill rats) for months but I stepped on a dead rat in the dark. In my bare feet. That was at least 10 years ago and I still don't like those people.
posted by fshgrl at 4:07 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is an except from an email I wrote to a family member, giving advice from my rat war, which was caused by an unlimited food subsidy. Long term, we eliminated the food source (chicken feed) but the yard was full of rats, so here goes. This was in Berkeley, coincidentally.

When you do genetic studies, you can see that the vast majority of rats- 95% or so- never leave an area beyond a few hundred yards of where they are born. The other five percent though, range for miles, looking for new food sources. If there is good food, then they stay and set up shop.

We tried many things, including a variety of different baits. The bait to buy is the "Just One Bite" brand- it is very popular on the Backyard Chicken forums. It is pretty toxic to anything (primarily mammals) that eats it though, so keep that in mind. It works by destroying clotting factors, so they bleed to death internally.

If you want to go the non-toxic route, mixing plaster of paris, olive oil, and peanut butter in equal parts will destroy their digestion, and kill at least some of them, but it isn't nearly as effective as the just one bite baits. The other problem is that it makes the eating of plants worse- they seem to want to purge their system with more fiber, or something, They even ate all the sage!

What ultimately worked was to eliminate the food source by building a rat-proof place for the birds to live. Once that was done, a final round of one-bite pretty much finished them off.

One of my neighbors (different place, still in the east bay) swore by electric rat zappers, and they get great reviews on Amazon.

Here is an excerpt from one of the reviews for this one from Victor. It has a lot of really good information about how to use a zapper, including the essential habituation step needed for any rat trap. I would probably go for the Agrizap rat zapper ultra though, if I were buying a rat zapper.


Have had great success with this product for over 5 years. Average size of rats killed is 8 inches, excluding the tail. Also killed many mice. Have used different bait combinations, incl. manufacturer's recommended peanut butter (not so good), kitten kibble (somewhat effective), and a buffet combo of aged cheddar cheese bits + walnut pieces + kitten kibble + bacon bits (totally irrisistible).

Most effective procedure to lure and kill rats/mice:
(1) Place bait inside the trap at the far end of the trap (where the metal end w/ holes is), while leaving the metal plate on the floor of the trap clean and bare of any bait.
(2) Place trap along a "run", usually parallel to a baseboard.
(3) Scatter a little bait outside the trap, in front of trap entryway to lead the rat towards the trap.

(4) !!DO NOT TURN ON THE BAITED TRAP FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS!! so the rats will assume this new source of food is safe for them. Be generous with the bait this first couple of days.

(5) On the third day, bait the trap as usual, place it in the exact location as before, and flick the trap's power switch to "On". should have your first electrocuted dead rat/mouse the next morning. You will know this because the little green light on top of the trap will be blinking on and off or you will see the rat's tail sticking out of the trap. Turn the switch to "Off". With gloved hands (disposable nitrile gloves are best), pick up the trap with the rat still inside, open your garbage can, slide the dead rat out of the trap into the garbage can.
posted by rockindata at 7:04 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

These folks in the East Bay are highly recommended by my hawk-loving friends who are trying to avoid more hawk poisonings, like these.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:19 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW I had a the same problem with field mice. They were terrorizing my pantry, but they were also so darn cute that I had a serious problem with any type of 'eradication'. In the end, I had to decide that my family's safety was more important than the liberties of a rodent.

Until you can do that, then none of the methods mentioned above will do you any good because you'll never actually follow through with them.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:20 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

It turns out that these same neighbors actually have a cat, who I just saw climbing along the same board/corridor that the rats use on our side of the fence. That makes me think that a snap trap in that location might be bad. I think I'll actually look into the exterminator options mentioned in the thread. Thanks for all your answers.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:39 AM on November 9, 2012

Speaking of hawks, what about attracting birds of prey? Don't know if you have local ones, in enough numbers, but since the pests are outside and above-ground frequently, maybe if there is a local population you could help attract them? I assume it would have both a deterrent and extermination effect. Doesn't need to be anything exotic; I would think a large owl species would work as well without being a threat to the kids or dog (I'm in Toronto so have no idea what fauna you have). I believe this is used to great success to catch pest birds at airports, and I am a little surprised there are few or no private services, but alternatively there are instructions out there for building perches and information on the general practice.

On a first Google pass: info from Washington State U., info from raptor preservation organization in Australia, info from Oregon organic farm organization, Strathcona County, this personal site that seems California-based, this article from a California newsletter, etc.
posted by sarahkeebs at 12:46 PM on November 11, 2012

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