By MARGO HORNER, The Mirror
It’s the middle of winter, flowers are dead, grass is frozen and berry bushes have dried and shriveled up.
Federal Way area rats and mice are hungry.
“They don’t really have a food source,” said Al Brown, service manager for Cascade Pest Control.
So rats and mice head out into the streets looking for food sources — often garbage or dog feces.
“When they’re out and about looking for food, the hairs on their body sense a temperature change when they’re near houses,” Brown said.
If the house offers an access inside, rats will find it. There are two kinds of rats in the Pacific Northwest: Norway rats and roof rats.
Norway rats prefer to live near the ground and in crawl spaces of houses. Roof rats commonly live in attics and access the house by climbing trees that touch the house.
Some rats also live in sewers, and they can travel through sewer lines. They are sometimes found in toilets. Rats who travel sewer lines are attracted to food and grease coming from kitchen drains.
Almost any hole can provide an access point for rats and mice into a home because their skulls are flexible and can squeeze into small spaces. A hole the size of an average person’s thumb is large enough for a rat to get through. A hole the size of a pinkie is large enough for a mouse.
Rodents will often gnaw at holes that aren’t quite big enough so that they can get through, Brown said.
“The important thing to do is make sure your house is secure and there’s no place for them to get in there,” he said.
Houses both new and old can be good homes for rodents, Brown said. And homeowners who have never had a problem before might discover that they have a problem with rodents after a contractor comes out and does some work, leaving an entry point into the house.
“There’s not a neighborhood any place that doesn’t have a rodent problem,” Brown said. “We have brand new multimillion-dollar houses that have rodent problems… Rodents don’t care how much money you have or where you live. They take advantage of opportunities that are presented to them.”
Humans are very good at unknowingly providing food and shelter to rats and mice, Brown said. He advised that concerned homeowners remove clutter and garbage from their property, get rid of ivy growing, and tour the house checking for possible access points indoors.
Cats or dogs can also be effective in controlling rodents, Brown said, although it depends on the actual pet. Most often, pets alert owners to the presence of a rodent by changes in their behavior, such as fixation on vents.
It is important to prevent rats and mice because they can spread disease and be destructive.
“They can eat through wiring, piping, plumbing… They can cause fires, that’s happened in the past,” Brown said. “They do carry diseases — they’re not the cleanest animal around.”
Rats trail urine and feces everywhere they go. They were one of the causes of the plague when the fleas they carried jumped from infected rats and spread the disease to humans.
It is important to get rid of rats or mice at the first sign of one, said Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for the Seattle/King County Department of Public Health.
“If you see one, you’ve got a problem,” Karasz said. “If you have them, take care of it right away. Don’t let it become a worse problem. Don’t be in denial.”
A sighting of a single rat probably means there are more rats lurking nearby, Karasz said.
“It’s a neighborhood problem,” she said. “If one person has rats, the whole neighborhood’s at risk.”
Most neighborhoods in King County have some rats. Despite their prevalence, there are steps homeowners can take to protect themselves, such as not leaving pet food or bird food outside.
“Clean up your environment so they don’t find it hospitable,” she said. “Get rid of the food, get rid of the water and get rid of the opening in your house; they’ll go somewhere else.”
Often times, the best choice for a homeowner with rat problems is to call an exterminator, Karasz said.
Rats are a problem homeowners will be dealing with for a long time.
“They’re going to be in your environment,” she said. “You’re not going to get rid of them all.”
Contact Margo Horner: firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 925-5565.
The Seattle/King County Department of Public Health offers the following tips for keeping rats away from homes:
The time to act is before the signs (droppings) of a rat or mouse.
Stack firewood 18 inches off the ground and away from all buildings.
Birdhouses and seed should be on poles and in trays that rats can’t reach.
Keep garbage can lids closed tightly.
Plant bushes so they will stay at least 3 feet away from your house.
Keep yards and alleys clean. Take junk to the dump.
If you feed them, they will stay. Pick up fruit and vegetables in your yard.
Do not compost any animal products (fish, meat, chicken, cheese, butter). Keep lids tight.
Use only rodent-resistant composters.
In basements, keep any food in closed containers that rats can’t chew through.
Cover all openings to your house. Rats can get into very small places.
Do not leave your pet food outside. If your pet doesn’t eat it, the rats will.
Roof rats get into your house from tree branches that hang over the roof. Keep trees cut back and cover any openings in the eves.
For more information, visit http://www.metrokc.gov/Health/env_hlth/rats.htm.