It’s obvious that rodents can make a big mess, damage structures and food storage containers, and can eat up both our food and the money used to purchase it and the replacements for it. What is not so obvious to some is the extreme risk to a family’s health and welfare from a rodent infestation.
In a previous article, Dealing with Pantry Pests: Bugs, we covered how to deal with insect invaders in the prepared pantry. Now it’s time to tackle the other critters that can wreak havoc on our stored foods: rodents.
Rodents carry hundreds of diseases
Did you know that rodents can carry any number of more than 200 diseases, many of which can be transmitted to humans? That’s not a typo, folks: more than TWO HUNDRED different disease organisms. While those cute little critters are strolling through the walls and across the floors looking for a meal and a potential mate, they are dropping hair and waste and contaminating whatever they wander across.
Pretty gross, isn’t it?
It gets worse.
We aren’t talking about the common cold here. Depending on the rodent you’re battling, they could be carrying fleas and ticks and anything from tularemia, leptospirosis, or salmonella to hantavirus, typhus, or even plague. Even if we luck out and don’t catch something from the rodents themselves, their presence can create secondary health risks: their nests, food caches, and even dead carcasses can draw in nasties like parasites, flies, and other disgusting invaders.
As someone who recently moved to the American Southwest, I figured I’d look up what issues could come up with the pack rats I’d heard about, so I could keep them from messing with my truck. I learned (brace yourselves!) that pack rat nests will draw other rodents, such as mice, and creepy crawlies such as kissing bugs, spiders, and my personal nemesis, scorpions. I’m sure you can picture my expression upon reading that one. You may even be making the same face!
Clearly, preventing a rodent infestation is something that all of us should be pretty concerned about. Everyone in the preparedness community invests time and money into stocking up on food, water, and other necessary supplies for our families, pets, and livestock. We don’t want to lose our hard-earned cash or our efforts to anyone, from the so-called Golden Hordes in our favorite TEOTWAWKI fiction series to the fluffy bunnies invading our gardens, or even the cute little mice scraping at the patio door for a wee nip of cheese. I’m sure we’re all in agreement that the critters need to stay away from our stuff – so let’s go over how to keep them out of it, and what to do to best protect our health if they do get past our defenses.
What ARE Rodents?
What exactly are we talking about when we use the term rodents? There are actually over 2,000 species in the rodent family. They include the rats and mice most of us will automatically think of, but they also include voles, gophers, and even beavers. Anywhere there is food to gobble down or a cozy spot to bed down, you can draw rodents – whether in the barn, the garden, the orchard, the car, or the house.
Rodents are incredibly adaptable and they’ll constantly test your defenses, learning by trial and error how to best achieve their goal of getting food, water, a nesting space, or a mate. That’s why rule number one in combatting rodents is to know which species you’re dealing with. Each rodent species will display different habits and has specific preferences for where they want to live, eat, and raise their fuzzy little families.
How Do I Discourage Rodents?
First things first: get rid of the things that draw rodents and provide a comfy environment for them.
- Cut clutter both inside and outside – don’t give these little guys a place to hide.
- Keep lawns mowed, bushes trimmed, and woodpiles stored away from the house (all of which also help cut fire risk).
- Remove food sources by storing things like feed grain, birdseed, and other tasty items in metal containers with secure lids.
- Make sure to cover new scraps when adding to a compost pile, and secure lids if using a trash bin or tumbler-style composter.
- If leaves pile up, remove them – this gets rid of potential nesting sites.
- Inside, clean up spills and crumbs promptly and keep things wiped down.
- Proper rotation of pantry items will help you spot warning signs promptly.
In general, keeping things tidy around the house will help combat an infestation of rodents just as it will fight an insect infestation. Tackling the to-do list for one will automatically tackle the list for the other. If you need a checklist, click through and check out the “Clean Up!” page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and see what is applicable to your situation.
Now continue with the “Seal Up!” portion of the CDC’s catchy little phrase for preventing rodent infestations: “Seal Up! Trap Up! Clean Up!”
Start your “Seal Up” efforts by checking your house and outbuildings for holes, gaps, loose shingles, shutters, or doors, or any other little spots where critters can get in. Seal them up from the inside AND the outside to keep rodents from getting into the area. Depending on the space, you may be able to block it with steel wool, or you may need to use caulk, expanding foam, or completely replace wallboard, shingles, or other structural items.
If you’re planning new construction or remodeling a space, look into designs that will help exclude rodents and research rodent-proof construction materials and methods. The National Park Service (NPS) has put together a lengthy training guide for their employees that you can download for free to learn more about the issue, called Rodent Exclusion Techniques. It’s well worth a look, particularly if you have a homestead in a rural area where there are bound to be more opportunities for rodents to survive.
It’s vital to remember that no matter what you do, if you don’t seal the cracks and crevices, more rodents will make their way in at some point. Don’t forget to address every level of your home, from the basement, foundation, or crawl space all the way up to the attic and eaves. If squirrels are an issue, keep an eye out for tree branches that provide roof access; trim them back to help cut off the “high road”.
How do I get rid of rodents if they’re already in?
Next up is setting traps. If you see evidence of an infestation, you’ll need to look into appropriate traps. Keep an eye out for:
- rodent droppings in food storage spaces or in/on food packages
- chew marks on food packages or storage containers
- shredded materials such as paper, fabric, cardboard, or dried plant material that could be nesting material
- holes that have been chewed into your walls or floors to create entryways for your unwelcome visitors.
- stale smells coming from areas that you can’t quite see into
- noises that point to something skittering around in a wall, attic, or the like.
Once you determine that you do, in fact, have an issue, you’ll need to look up what kind of rodent is coming in so you can get the appropriate trap(s) for the species. This is where the aforementioned research is vital, since certain traps will work better for certain animals, and you’ll need to place the traps based on the common behaviors of the species you’re fighting. The main thing is that snap traps will usually serve you best; live traps and glue traps (or “sticky” traps) are not recommended.
One common theme you’ll see from a lot of organizations, including the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) is to stick with traps unless you absolutely cannot avoid using a rodenticide. Using a poison should be your last resort, because of the potential risks to people, pets, and livestock, as well as useful wildlife in your area. You will also run the risk of having a poisoned rodent die in an area that cannot be accessed for removal of a carcass and you’re looking at the potential for bad smells, secondary pest infestations, and removal and repair bills.
(Should you attempt trapping and not achieve the results you need, the NPIC has an excellent tip sheet with information on using rodenticides as safely as possible.)
They’re Gone – Now What?
Remember those health risks we covered? If you have an infestation, there will be more than traps and carcasses to clean up – it’s not just live rats and mice that create a health hazard. It is absolutely vital to take the proper precautions when dealing not only with traps and dead rodents, but also with their waste materials, nests, and the like. Know in advance that it is very important to not stir up dust by sweeping or vacuuming while cleaning up any of these items.
Before you begin, ventilate the area for at least half an hour. Try to get cross-ventilation so plenty of fresh air is moving through. Now it’s time to don gloves (rubber, latex, or vinyl – no fibers that can allow the material to pass through!) and if you like, an N95 mask. Next, spray down urine and droppings with a solution of bleach and water (in a ratio of one part bleach to ten parts water) or a disinfectant spray. Let the liquid soak the area for about five minutes. Using a paper towel, pick up the waste and immediately throw it away in a trash bag.
If you have traps, dead rodents, or nests to dispose of, proceed in a similar manner. Yup, you’re going to spray the dead rodent with disinfectant and let it soak in before you handle the animal. Once you’ve cleaned up any carcasses, traps, nests, and waste, double bag the trash bag and get it out of the house. Then move on to disinfecting the home spaces and items like bedding. Keep those gloves on – and when all is said and done, remove your gloves and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water.
If you need to clean other spaces, such as an attic or crawlspace, or outbuildings such as barns and sheds, the process is similar. Refer to the CDC’s cleaning webpage for further information so you can stay as safe as possible during clean up and disposal procedures. This webpage is where you’ll find the more in-depth information for dealing with things like insulation, as well as how to clean and sanitize a vehicle that has had a rodent infestation.
Please note that in the case of a heavy rodent infestation, it may be necessary to call in a professional or invest in much sturdier gear. The items worn and used for cleaning up a heavy rodent infestation must also be decontaminated or disposed of properly, including labeling as infectious for transport. This is an absolute MUST in an area where hantavirus has been confirmed in the rodent population, such as in the southwestern United States.
Your local/state health department or the CDC can give you further information about hantavirus findings and concerns for your area. Definitely touch base with them so that your family is as safe as possible should you need to clean up an area where hantavirus is prevalent.
Have you ever had a rodent infestation?
As you can see, dealing with a rodent infestation can be time-consuming and involve quite a bit of work. It is worth it to research the species that are in your region and do what you can in advance to keep these critters from getting a foothold in and around your home.
For more information about rodents specific to your area, contact your local agricultural extension office. They will often be able to provide you with information not only about home pests but also wildlife that will try to browse in your garden. Armed with that information, you can even take on the bigger creatures and have more supplies to put by – and your pantry will be full and safe from the rodents trying to work their way in (beavers included)!
Editor’s note: I haven’t had a problem with rodents since I began keeping pet cats. Not only are they wonderful companions, but they’re also fantastic deterrents to rodents. And if you DO end up with them getting into your home, the cats will make short work of the problem. ~ Daisy
Have you ever had a rodent infestation? What got into your home and how did you deal with it? Share your tips in the comments section below.