RATS (AND MICE) THE LANDLORD'S NIGHTMARE
By Alan Caruba
Copyright, Alan Caruba, 2001
All Rights Reserved
This article cannot be published without permission.
In the late 1940’s when the US was testing its nuclear arsenal, it
selected Eniwetok, an atoll in the western Pacific for one such test.
The bomb was dropped and, in 1950, the biologists inspected the tiny
island. The remaining land and marine animals, all plant life, and even
the soil itself were found to be highly radioactive. What they discovered,
however, was that, not only had the rats survived, they had thrived!
“The island abounded with rats recalls Dr. William B. Jackson. “Not
maimed or genetically deformed creatures, but robust rodents so in tune
with their environment that their life spans were longer than average.”
The earliest pest control professionals
(the industry now refers to itself as “pest management” professionals)
were ratcatchers. Everywhere mankind created cities and civilizations,
rats were found and, by the Middle Ages, the profession of ratcatcher was
well established. They also branched out into exterminated pest insects
and it was the early immigration from Europe to the United States that
brought many of these people to our shores. One of them was Hessel Orkin
who brought his family from Latvia. Today, Orkin is synonymous with pest
If there is one sure way to have
tenants on the phone and at your doorstep it is to ignore pest control.
Rats and mice are feared and hated. They thrive in cities and, in fact,
they thrive everywhere humans are found because humans provide them vast
opportunities for food and harborage with their elaborate structures,
apartments and condominiums, their dumpsters, their garbage placed at the
curbside. (The same can be said for cockroaches.)
When the weather turns cold, rats and
mice who might have a burrow outside a structure will abandon it to move
into the nice warm building. Their annual invasion is part of today’s
pest control professional’s routine.
My longtime friend and a leading
consultant to the pest control industry, Dr. C. Douglass Mampe, says
“Do-it-yourself rodent control is a virtually impossible task” and the
reason for this is that, whether it’s a homeowner or landlord, “This
is truly a job for pest control professionals who have the training and
the materials necessary to get the job done.”
Today’s pest control management
professional (PMP) is licensed, certified annually, and requires the same
kind of continual training other professions must meet. Every major firm
has either an in-house entomologist or a training director or both. Even
smaller firms hire consultants like Dr. Mampe to come in and train their
technicians. State pest control associations offer monthly training
sessions, lectures and some have annual all-day seminars to keep their
members up-to-date on the latest techniques.
They also have something else. They
have the tools and the rodenticides necessary to get the job done. And the
job never is done!
Here’s why. The common house mouse is
the most widely distributed mammal on the planet. Along with pets, no
other animal lives in closer proximity to humans. People inevitably
underestimate the ability of mice and rats to gain entry to a home, an
apartment or any other structure. One inside, mice will reproduce quickly.
“A healthy female mouse can produce up to ten litters a year,” notes
Dr. Mampe. “Each will contain an average of five pups which will begin
to forage in about three weeks. They, in turn, will produce litters of
their own within ten to twelve weeks.”
Like mice, rats will gain entry because
they are excellent climbers, using wires, pipes, and even the corners of a
building to find points of entry. Rats have a lifespan of about nine
months. They are ready to breed within three months and their gestation
period is about twenty-two days. They have an average litter of eight pups
and an average female rat will produce twenty offspring.
A single pair of rats, mathematically,
has the potential of producing 359 million descendents in just three
year’s time. Of course, they don’t because they are subject of the
constant work of PMP’s to eradicate them. Still, Nature has given them
the upper hand whenever the effort falls short.
Rats and mice, along with various
species of pest insects such as mosquitoes and fleas, are Nature’s way
of spreading diseases that have had more impact throughout history than
anything else, thinning out the human population. The Black Death (Bubonic
plague) during the Middle Ages killed a quarter to a third of Europe’s
population. It was spread by a combination of rats and fleas.
In wartime, insect and rodent-borne
diseases do more damage to an army on the move than any enemy.
These days, mice spread the deadly
Hantavirus and the crippling Lyme disease. Wherever rats and mice are
found, their ability to contaminate food is enormous, causing outbreaks of
Salmonella and other diseases. Among the diseases spread by rodents are
trichinosis, leptospirosis, tuleremia, Lassa fever, lymphocytic
choriomeningitis, dysentery, swine fever, Newcastle disease, Chagas’
disease, foot and mouth disease, listeriosis, Rocky Mountain spotted
fever, and toxoplasmosis.
In January, USA Today devoted a long
article to the increase of the rat population in New York City. “Such is
the state of alarm that officials held a ‘rat summit’ at Columbia
University” launching a $600,000 education campaign and re-energizing a
task force led by a deputy mayor to get some control over the situation.
Ironically, the modern plague of rats
in New York and elsewhere is related to the strong economy that involves
building new structures and, in the process, dislodging rats from their
burrows to go in search of new harborage. In a city, they have a vast
highway of pipelines with which to move effortlessly between buildings.
Once inside a new building, they have similar highways.
Rats, in particular, do a great deal of
property damage because they must constantly gnaw on something to keep
their teeth sharp and to avoid having them grow so long they will
literally curve backwards and plunge into their brains. They will gnaw on
wood, on concrete, on anything. Active primarily between dusk and dawn,
rats will eat a wide variety of food. Mice are far more careful about what
The result is that manufacturers of
rodenticides have had to develop baits that will not create “bait
shyness.” A dead rat is a signal to all the others to stay clear of
whatever it was eating. Mice are very picky eaters, making from twenty to
thirty short visits throughout the night to sites within ten to thirty
feet of their place of hiding. Rats require water daily. Mice do not. What
both species do is urinate and leave droppings everywhere they go.
Many fires of “unknown origin”
result from rats and mice gnawing on electrical wiring. This poses a
constant threat to any structure. And you thought that tenants smoking in
bed were a problem!
Build Them Out
The pest control profession these days
is concentrated on “environmentally safe” ways to avoid infestations
of every kind and their advice is to build them out. A PMP is just as
likely to do a complete analysis of your structure to highlight those
areas that need fixing to insure that entry is restricted. You should
listen to and act upon their recommendations.
You’re likely to be told to remove
those nice vines growing on the side of your structure and to clear away
the ornamental bushes and shrubs. You will be advised to cut back any tree
limbs that extend over the roofs or are close to your structure. Do it.
Building them out includes sealing off
access, using sheet metal to prevent them from gnawing doors or opening
spaces around pipes leading into a building. Heavy wire mesh should screen
against gaining access via ventilators and basement windows. Metal guards
on pipes prevent them from gaining a foothold. The list can be a long one.
Decades of propaganda aimed at
eliminating pesticides of every kind have caused PMPs and the public the
loss of the most important tool in the war on insect and rodent pests. In
2000, the Environmental Protection Agency, citing a hazard to children,
got Dursban banned. This pesticide, in use for forty years with no
indication of any threat to anything other than insect pests, was taken
off the market. It was in use in more than 800 products.
Rodenticides, in the hands of PMPs, are
now placed around structures in tamper-proof feeding stations, reducing
the possibility of children or pets gaining access to them. Throw packs of
rodenticides are placed in void areas. Devices for catching mice are
increasingly sophisticated. Glue traps are widely used as well. They are
Among the leading manufacturers are the
J.T. Eaton company, Lipha Tech and Bell Laboratories. The Kness
Manufacturing Company makes excellent multiple-catch mousetraps with the
brand name of “Ketch-All” and “Mini-Mouser.” Another excellent
producer is Woodstream, manufacturer of the famed “Victor” line of
Find a PMP and stick with him
The biggest mistake landlords make is
that they look for the lowest possible bid for pest control services. This
results in poor service and a problem that is never abated or often grows
worse. Then they find someone else. It’s a formula for never solving the
There are state associations for
PMP’s and a visit to their website will often link you to the websites
of individual members. The first rule is to only hire a PMP who is a
member. It’s even better if the firm is also a member of the National
Pest Management Association. Those who are not members simply cannot be
expected to conform to industry codes of professional service.
You can always ask colleagues for
recommendations of firms providing good service. No matter how you go
about selecting a PMP, the idea is to make a firm commitment. Then it is
essential that you listen to and act upon the advice you receive.
Otherwise, no PMP will ever be able to do more that provide a moderation
of rodent activity. The good ones can rid your structure and keep it
rodent-free, but that job never ends!
Inspection! Inspection! Inspection is
the rule of thumb among PMP’s these days. Whether you have had a rodent
sighting or not, a trained technician will always need to look for signs
of rodent activity such as their droppings or the oily smears that rats
leave behind. They prefer to move around close to a walled surface. The
dumpster area will always be one of great concern.
And jump on any sighting or complaint
of rodents. Remember, they breed with astonishing rapidity. It’s a good
investment. It also avoids ugly headlines and potential lawsuits.
For more than three decades I have been
writing about pest control and working with members of the pest
control--now pest management--profession. I have found them to be good
people trying to do a good job. Today they are better trained and better
equipped than ever before.
# # # # # # # #
Alan Caruba is a public relations
professional who has been honored by members of the pest management
industry for his knowledge of their role in the protection of health and
property. His firm, headquartered in Maplewood, NJ, maintains an
internet site at Caruba.Com. He can be reached at
or (973) 763-6392.
Copyright, Alan Caruba, 2001
All Rights Reserved
This article cannot be published