As thousands of restaurants remain closed to stem the spread of COVID-19, rodents are having to find leftover food scraps from somewhere else. In major cities like New Orleans, media footage shows rats wandering empty streets in search of sustenance. Because you didn’t have enough to worry about already, right?
Even if you don’t live anywhere near major cities, it’s still a good idea to protect your home against possible pests, especially as they become more desperate for food.
Here’s how to protect your home from rats and mice during a pandemic—or otherwise.
What’s happening with rats right now?
By nature, rats are scavengers that have, over time, come to depend on humans as their food source in heavily populated areas. We leave half-eaten pizza on sidewalks and toss tons of scraps in our garbage cans each day. But when the pandemic hit earlier this year, restaurants closed up shop and rats lost their primary dining spots, according to Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association.
“With that gone, there’s more pressure on these rats to find a new food source, so they’re actively pursuing food,” Fredericks says.
Michael Parsons, a visiting research scholar at Fordham University who studies urban rats, says rats in places where food is scarce are showing signs of stress. They’re coming out during the day, and many have wounds that indicate they’ve been competing with other rats for food sources.
“More [of these] animals are taking risks to cross busy sidewalks—or even running through an open door—to reach a potential target,” he says.
So it stands to reason that if rats become desperate enough, they could take their search for sustenance to other places where food scraps are thrown out: residential homes.
And city dwellers aren’t the only ones at risk. This theory holds true even in suburban parts of the country, say, if rats used to looking for food at now-closed strip malls find themselves hungry.
“I don’t think armies of rats with pitchforks and torches are marching toward suburbia,” Fredericks says. “But they are definitely seeking food in places where they haven’t previously.”
Threats rats pose to your home
While rats have not yet been shown to pass COVID-19 to humans, according to the NPMA, there’s still reason to fear what these critters can do to your homes.
“A significant percentage of ‘fires of unknown origin’ are suspected of being caused by rats chewing on wires,” Parsons says. “They cause structural damage through gnawing to get into areas that may have food or water.”
And rats can pass other non-COVID-19 diseases to humans such as salmonella, Fredericks says. Plus, they can exacerbate existing allergy and asthma symptoms, especially in children.
How to prepare your home—and assess its weaknesses
It doesn’t hurt to assess your home in advance of a possible rat problem. To do that, you’ll want to think like the enemy.
“Walk around the property, and pretend you are a rodent,” Parsons says. “This might take some imagination, but we take the same approach when we burglar-proof our homes. Where would we enter the home if we weighed 400 grams?”
Fredericks says rats can squeeze through holes the size of a quarter while their smaller counterparts, mice, can wriggle into holes the size of a dime. Check for these holes in hot spots around your home. Look closely at doors and windows, around pipes and exhaust vents, and at any electrical cables coming into the house.
Fredericks says you’ll want to secure food both inside your home and outside, including garbage cans.
“Plastic bags holding garbage are just like wrapping paper to rats,” he says. “It’s a gift.”
And don’t forget to secure your pet’s food, including bags of kibble you might be keeping in odd places like the basement.
“Rats do have a great sense of smell,” Fredericks adds.
Parsons suggests sweeping your home weekly to look for signs of rats. Doing so regularly will ensure you know what’s changed if rats do come around.
Fredericks says the first telltale sign is rat droppings. Look, too, for chewed surfaces or food supplies, as well as burrowing points where the rats might have made their way in.
In the Northern U.S., Fredericks says, that might mean burrows from your flower beds into your homes. In warmer climates, it might mean rats have made their way into your attic by way of overhanging palm trees.
When to call a pest control professional
Pest control can be a DIY ordeal (especially when you have so much time on your hands), but there are times when you’ll want to call in the big guns.
“When a pest control pro is called out, they take a holistic approach to what’s going on,” Fredericks says. “It’s not just about setting out mousetraps.”
Fredericks suggests hiring a professional for a more thorough evaluation of your home’s hot spots and to address a current infestation. These experts can tell you how you can try to fix a problem, and they can ensure a thorough extermination of the rats with safe and humane methods.