Rodents can wreak havoc, whether you’re homesteading in the country, the suburbs, or the city. Rats and mice are most problematic in three domains: pet and livestock productivity and health, human health, and property condition and safety.
Rats, particularly, are apt to kill small livestock, including poultry chicks, rabbit kits, and adult quail. Rats can also torment small livestock by chewing on limbs and ears. Not only can this lead to suffering, infection, and death for your livestock, but also the stress of merely having rats around can cause your livestock to stop reproducing or laying eggs.
Both rats and mice can also spread serious diseases to both animals and humans. These diseases include hantavirus, viral hemorrhagic fevers, salmonellosis, Lassa fever, rat-bite fever, MRSA, and many others. (Some people dismiss these diseases as not a big deal, but after seeing my father-in-law nearly die from leptospirosis due to exposure to mouse droppings, I urge everyone to take this risk seriously.)
Finally, rodents can cause a great deal of damage to your property, including contaminating food with their feces. That food – sometimes worth hundreds of dollars – must then be thrown away. Worse, it isn’t unusual for rodents to chew electrical wires, which not only can cause thousands of dollars’ worth of damage but may also lead to electrical fires that put your animals and your family at risk.
Prevention is the First Line of Defense
The best course of action is prevention. Focus on not attracting rodents to your property in the first place. The best way to do that is to contain all possible sources of food. Always store animal feed in metal bins with secure lids, since rats can chew through plastic bins. Never keep feed in its original bag without also putting it inside a large metal garbage can, or something similar, to protect it from rodents.
Whenever possible, give your animals only what they’ll eat during the day. Feed them in the morning, since rodents tend to be more active in the evening. If you accidentally spill any feed, sweep it up right away. If it isn’t salvageable for your livestock, throw it away in a metal trash bin with a secure lid.
Human food attracts rodents too, so keep your trash securely stored in a metal can with a snug-fitting lid. Additionally, any food-storage areas should be free from openings that allow rodents in. Adult rats need only a 12-millimeter horizontal gap to enter, while young rats need just 8 millimeters. Mice can squeeze through holes as thin as a dime. Plug those holes properly, remembering that rodents don’t mind gnawing through cardboard, fabric, plastic, foam, and thin aluminum. They won’t, however, chew through concrete, bricks, sheet metal, or steel wool.
Since rodents aren’t picky about what they eat, it also helps to avoid feeding the wildlife. If you leave wild bird food or deer bait out, for example, you may as well be putting out food for rats and mice.
If you have open compost piles, keep the compost hot until it’s completely done decomposing. Cool compost piles with still-edible contents are a favorite hangout for rodents. Another option is to use well-sealed, thick-plastic compost bins to keep rodents out.
Rodents also need places to hide, so remove any junk piles and instead store your stuff inside rodent-resistant buildings. They also love tall grass and weeds, so keep things mowed and weed-whacked, especially around buildings or anywhere livestock or pet food may be.
Do You Have an Infestation?
Since homesteads naturally tend to have livestock food and water that attract rodents, keep your eyes peeled for any sign of an infestation. Usually, the first thing people notice is droppings, which are pointed at one end and may contain hair. Typically, you won’t see any rats or mice unless your infestation is large; rodents prefer to be active during the night, but if there’s a lot of competition for food, they’ll venture out during the day. Other signs of rodent infestation include nests made of dried material, such as hay, grass, or shredded paper; greasy or dirty trails on floors or walls; gnawed items, such as wood shelves or plastic containers; paths in taller grass or weeds; scratch marks; and foul smells.
How can you tell whether rats or mice are the problem? Adult rats leave behind larger tooth marks, and their droppings are about 1/2 inch long, twice the size of mouse droppings.
How to Get Rid of Rats Outside Without Poison
Many modern homesteaders want to work with nature, even when it comes to dealing with rodent infestations. Fortunately, there are a few ways to combat rodents with this mindset. Natural sprays – such as sprays made with peppermint, lemon balm, eucalyptus or citronella oils; vinegar; and other herbs from the kitchen – may prevent rodents from building nests nearby, but they won’t be enough to keep rodents away from a good supply of food or water.
One solution is to get some good hunting cats. While cats are effective against mice and bushy-tailed woodrats, they’ll rarely kill brown sewer rats. Feed your felines: Hungry, weak, or sick cats aren’t good hunters. Besides, good hunting cats don’t care if their tummies are full; they’ll still hunt and kill rodents if the opportunity arises. If you have more than one cat, they’ll typically break up your property into different hunting zones. Cats vary in the amount of territory they claim, but if you have too many cats, they may spend more time fighting over territory than hunting.
Another option against rats is a rat dog, or “ratter.” These canines (usually terriers) are trained to kill any rats they smell or see. I’ve looked at successful hunts posted on rat dog websites and talked to a few homesteaders who have hired rat dogs, and I’ve found that many for-hire dogs work around 3 to 4 hours, with a single dog possibly killing up to 100 rats during that time. If you can hire a pack of rat dogs and their owner uses a smoker to drive the pests from their hiding places, hundreds of rats may be killed during that same time frame. If you decide to hire a rat dog or choose to buy and train one yourself, lock up your poultry when the dog is active. Ratters tend to enjoy hunting and killing chickens and other poultry too. Rat terriers can generally cohabit with cats just fine.
However, even if you have a successful canine rat hunt, rats may still be left behind. That’s when you need to consider traps if you haven’t implemented them already. To many people, snap traps baited with peanut butter seem most humane because they usually kill the rodent instantly. Another possibility is the use of zappers, which are small boxes that trap rodents and then electrocute them. Putting these zappers in the middle of rodent paths may prove most effective when food supplies are abundant and it’s difficult to entice rodents to eat bait. Once in a while, however, these traps can short, becoming a fire hazard.
If you’re thinking about using poisons against rodents, understand that there are several types, and some are more dangerous than others. This is only an introduction to rodenticides. (For a more in-depth overview of the different types of rodenticides and their effects on pets, see “Rodenticide Poisoning in Pets” in the October/November 2023 issue of our sister magazine Mother Earth News. – Grit Editors)
First-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (the earliest developed rodenticides), such as warfarin, take several doses to kill rodents, and some rodent populations have developed resistance to them. Because multiple doses are required, wildlife or domestic animals are at risk of eating a rodent and receiving a dose of the poison themselves.
However, newer rodenticides, such as cholecalciferol, brodifacoum, difenacoum, difethialone, bromadiolone, and zinc phosphide, can be extremely dangerous, either because they have no antidote or are directly poisonous to humans, wildlife, livestock, and pets. Carefully consider the impacts of using rodenticides on your land, both short-term and long-term. If you proceed with using rodenticides, you may want to hire a professional exterminator.
One rodenticide is considered relatively safe: corn gluten and salt. This all-natural mixture works by swelling inside the rodent’s stomach and dehydrating them, leading to death in 3 to 4 days. While the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals notes that this mixture causes only gastrointestinal upset in dogs and cats, these pets can develop intestinal blockage and dehydration if they consume enough of the mixture.
Consider a few other factors before choosing a rodenticide. One is flavor; even brands that use the same poison use different things to flavor it – and some rodents do seem to learn to avoid certain scents and tastes. (Or perhaps they just find some flavors more irresistible than others.) In addition, think about the time of year. When lots of wild food are available, rats and mice are less likely to eat poison.
If you use a rodenticide, take precautions to prevent it from doing unintended harm. First, store it securely in a locked cabinet, out of the reach of children and pets. Never store poisons anywhere near food, including pet and livestock food. When using bait, never leave it in the open; use bait stations, which are enclosed plastic boxes with holes just big enough for rodents to enter and eat the poison. Make sure cats and other small critters can’t get in and eat the poison.
If you have any reason to believe one of your animals has been poisoned by rodenticide, take it to a veterinarian immediately. Treatment depends upon an accurate understanding of what poison the animal has ingested, so bring the packaging (or a photo of the packaging) the poison came in. Treatment can take as long as several weeks or even months. However, some rodenticides have no treatment.
If you suspect a human has directly consumed a rodenticide or may have a secondary poisoning after touching a dead rodent, contact emergency services immediately and bring the poison’s packaging with you.
To help reduce any risk of secondary poisoning, check for dead rodents at least once a day. Dispose of any carcasses by picking them up with gloved hands and putting them in a trash bag. Tie off the top of the bag and put it in a secure trash can. Then, disinfect the area. For more detailed instructions, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and search “clean up after rodents.”
Kristina Seleshanko is the author of 28 books, including the bestselling The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook. She blogs about homesteading at Proverbs 31 Homestead.