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Am I the New Rat Whisperer?

Rats inhabit my attic -- how do I convince them to leave in a way that's humane and safe for cats?

 |  Jun 20th 2014  |   6 Contributions


Author's note: This article is a departure from my usual postings about cat behavior. Although different, there are aspects of this that do relate to our favorite topic -- cats!

The ceiling above my office fascinates my three cats. Late at night their heads swivel in unison, following something that is invisible to my untrained eye. I had blithely assumed that my little hunters were fixated on spiders. Nope, spiders do not have their undivided attention -- something larger, with fur, is captivating them.

I love my house. At more than 80 years old, it needs a major makeover. Because a fresh coat of paint will not fix termite damage, dry rot and electrical issues, I am renovating it. During a routine inspection, the termite inspector discovered the large, furry intruders; Rats. Apparently they are comfortably camping out in my attic without my knowledge. Ugh …

No one goes in the attic. Horror movies are filmed in attics like mine. The only way to access it is by climbing an antique, rickety ladder that is solidly fastened to the wall in a closet. Above it is a heavy 18-inch-square piece of wood that must be removed before entering the space. It is not a people-friendly place -- only rafters and insulation, no power, no windows, no floor. It is perfect for rats, squirrels and nightmares.

The only way up to my attic is this ladder

Rats have feelings

Even though I do not want to share my home with rats, I do not want to hurt them. Rats are intelligent, feeling animals. They deserve to be treated humanely and with compassion but they need another place to hang out. NIMBY! (Not In My Back Yard)

Poisons and inhumane, lethal traps are out of the question. In addition to delivering a painful and lingering death, poison claims other victims. The toxins work their way up the food chain. Other predators eat the tainted vermin and become the unintended victims of secondary poisoning. California recently got the message and banned the use of poisons. Yay for my state!

Other common ways for ridding attics of rats are the cruel snap traps and glue boards. Glue boards are terribly inhumane -- rats literally become glued and either suffocate or starve to death. Snap traps are a tiny bit more humane, but only if they snap on the rats neck. They sometimes miss the mark and the rat suffers. Like poison, both of these lethal traps often have other unintended victims.

Cats are not the answer. Rats carry diseases, they may have ingested poison and they bite.

Wooden mouse trap by Shutterstock.

Somehow I need to convince the rodents that my attic is not the hot spot to congregate. Rats carry diseases, are dangerous and dirty. Their droppings are toxic. Although I do not want them to suffer, these guys need to find another place to park themselves. So I searched for humane solutions.

1. The Internet

I turned to that bastion of virtual truth -- the Internet. I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions. I also called local trappers and pest-control companies. My FB friends had creative solutions for the problem. One recommended that I make “bucket traps." Enough water needs to be put in the traps so the rodents cannot escape; but not too much -- don’t want them to drown. After the rats are trapped, I could release the captives somewhere. Nothing about that suggestion appeals to me.

Build a better bucket trap!

Another recommendation was trapping, neutering and releasing -- also known as TNR -- the rats. A local friend politely requested that we don’t choose his town as their new home.

How about trap, neutering and releasing them?

Bats and boa constrictors were put forth as possible solutions to the problem. Do bats eat rats? Asking predators to do the job has its own set of challenges, including poop. And, after they do their job, who convinces them to leave and where do they go? I also want a humane solution. Being eaten by a predator might be a natural way to go, but it isn’t pain-free or humane.

Bats in the belfry

Someone suggested that I talk to the rats and convince them to leave. And of course there were the clicker training comments. Maybe I will become the original “rat whisperer.”

Ask them politely to leave

The most sensible suggestions were to treat the attic with products that rats hate to be around. Peppermint and other essential oils are commonly used. Fox urine is also supposed to be effective. (I wonder how they get fox urine …) Rats abandoned places that smell like peppermint and fox urine. Essential oils need to be used with caution. They are highly toxic for cats. After the rats vacate the premises, all of the entry points need to be located and blocked so that the rats cannot return.  The last step is cleaning and sanitizing the attic.

Peppermint and other essential oils make the attic an unpleasant place

2. Rodent control companies

The Internet is full of pest control companies and trappers. I called many. Most laughed at me when I asked if they used nonlethal methods. A few had not gotten the memo that poisons were illegal for rat control in California. All of the trappers and most of the companies were adamant that lethal traps were the only option. One company went to great lengths to tell me that rats were not on the endangered species list.

A humane mouse trap by Shutterstock.

Only two companies took me seriously. Both use the essential oils and products that mimic predator urine, encouraging the rats to vacate the premises. After they are evicted, their routes into the attic will be blocked and their former home cleaned and sanitized. The downside to both of these companies is that they use inhumane traps to catch the stragglers who refuse to leave. We are having conversations about this. The company that agrees to evict them with deterrents and to use humane live traps will have my business.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques. 

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.  She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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