By Cynthia Smith (Veterinarian in Washington) – I hate rats. I hate the way they dig dirty holes in my nice clean barns. I hate the squishy way the floor feels when there’s a rat tunnel underneath it. I hate the sick feeling I get when I see a rat whisk past my feet as I open the barns in the morning. I hate their furry little brown disease-carrying bodies that make me feel like my backyard chickens are a menace to all the neighborhood and like, any minute, the next Black Death will descend upon the world and all because I just had to raise poultry. My hatred of rats and their presence on my property lead me to search for solutions on how to get rid of rats.
Act 1: The Discovery
I feel like rodents are the dirty little secret of the poultry world. The one thing we hate to discuss or admit to (like having fleas on your dog or cockroaches in your house); acknowledging that you have seen a rat in your barn is like saying you are a bad person — one with really crummy hygiene. My son Rob has been well-trained never to say the word in public. (The last thing I want the neighbors to know is that the cute little backyard farm next door might be less than perfect, let alone a potential reservoir of disease.)
Indeed, when I told Rob I was going to write this article, his first words were: “I hope it’s going to be anonymous!” I didn’t always hate rats. I had the pet white variety as a child and saw them occasionally in my practice as a veterinarian. It was only after I acquired chickens (about eight years ago at the age of 43) that the loathing began.
Our first order of chickens on my son’s birthday arrived in a cheeping little cardboard box from the Murray McMurray hatchery. While they grew inside of a puppy pen in the house, my husband and 8-year-old son labored to build a raccoon-proof coop in the backyard. Feed was stored in the next-door shed (which had an elevated floor).
All went well, as far as we knew, until the following summer when my husband reached to the upper shelves of the shed and pulled down last year’s nylon swimming pool. The blue plastic came down in a heap, along with the rats that had been nesting in it. As furry bodies rained over my husband’s head and shoulders, an impossibly high-pitched shriek emerged from his masculine throat and my son was witness to a burst of profanity the likes of which he had never heard his Christian father utter. “Mommy, Daddy swore!”
After the gnawed plastic and gruesome tale were revealed to me on my arrival home, I began my first foray into the business of extermination and researching how to get rid of rats; not something a veterinarian is particularly well-trained in. My husband proudly brought home electric traps, a tip he’s received when researching how to get rid of rats. They were supposed to give a quick painless death to the rat when it stepped on the plate. Either they didn’t work, or the rats never touched them. Nary a body did we ever see from those expensive devices. Then there were the glue traps. Guess what, the glue isn’t sticky anymore if it gets anything on it, like dust or shavings. Strangely, my coops were not dust-free. Then there were the good old-fashioned oversized mouse traps designed for their rattish cousins. These at least got some action. We found them exploded six to 10 feet from where they were set, but again, both bait and rat-free. I need not even mention the “humane live catch” trap (it was sized for mice anyway, who seem to be a lot dumber than rats). The plan was that mice could get in but not out again, so one was supposed to check the trap daily and humanely release Mickey and Minnie back into the wild. My husband only tried this once. He forgot to check the trap for two weeks, after which there were multiple cannibalized mouse corpses in the trap; the aftermath of a rodent-style Hunger Games and clearly not a humane way to die.
At this point, I felt there was no option except to try poison as a means of how to get rid of rats. All my efforts to employ natural ways to kill mice and rats were unsuccessful. I never wanted to use rat poison. Goodness knows, we see enough dogs and cats poisoned either by the poison itself or by consuming the poisoned animal. Years before we ever had poultry or had thought of using poison, we lost a pet cat to DeCon poisoning.
An excellent mouser, she would bring back just the tails and line them up at night for our admiration. Twice, she must have eaten a poisoned animal. The first time, we pulled her through. The second time, we were too late. So I know the risk of poison to the animals nearby. Unfortunately, I also understand the risk of a rat incursion in a populated area, both to property and to health. Something had to be done.
Intermission: Safe Rat Control Options
A word here must be inserted about what is certainly the most natural and safe of rat-control options: the domestic or farm cat or, perhaps, a rat terrier. People swear by this option for how to get rid of mice. The terrier was right out as, in my experience, dogs that kill rats also really enjoy killing chickens. But what about a cat? I counted. We have had 12 cats in the past 29 years. Of those, three were excellent mousers. Two of three died before they attained late middle age (about eight years), presumably because of their outdoor lifestyle. We are responsible citizens and have our pets spayed and neutered, so frequent replacement was not an option. The two cats who currently reside on my bed would not dream of soiling their precious paws with a filthy rodent. If you have a healthy supply of competent barn cats, and are reading this article thinking what a dangerous poison-wielding idiot I am, my hat is off to you.
Act 2: Back to the Rat Story
Let us return to the saga. I contacted our Washington State Poultry Vet at the lab that does necropsies on poultry. If you do not have the access to a brilliant poultry resource like Dr. Roccio Crespo in your state, you have my pity.
Dr. Crespo informed me that I needed to buy little locking plastic boxes that hold the poison tightly confined on stakes. In this way, the rat must eat the poison in the box and cannot carry a chunk away to possibly poison another animal. I bought Tomcat boxes and bait at the local feed store. They were easy to use. The poison disappeared, dead rat bodies appeared and were immediately disposed of. There was no collateral damage in birds or other animals. Whew!
Fast forward to our move from our little house on a small lot to our littler house on a large (1.3-acre lot) a few years later. In the classic reverse market savvy that runs in my unhappy family, the real estate market crashed mere weeks after the papers were signed. Our new house was immediately worth much less than we paid, the mortgage was underwater and our old house unsalable unless at a very great loss. Doggedly, we muscled on as have many ethical Americans in the same situation. Refusing to renege on our word because circumstances had changed, we paid for our now overpriced home and prepared to become landlords as our old house was now vacant. Another rat crisis worsened our situation. When we abruptly removed every bird to our new barn on the new property, the current invisible rats grew and hungered. They went looking for food. They found it in grass seed stored in the garage, in camping food locked away in the attic, in water and food stores stored in plastic 24-hour kits. Before we knew it, we had rats that had moved uptown: highfalutin rodents living high in the attic and sporting top hats and monocles. The traps were again a failure. Once again, we were forced to resort to the poison. It worked, but with a small side effect. These rats did not do us the courtesy of quietly dying in their holes underground.
Noooo, they went to the far reaches of the attic and vents to die. It was summer. Chanel Number Fur permeated the house in several unexpected areas: the master bedroom, the hall closet, and the pantry — open these doors and prepare to run. All searches for their desiccating bodies proved futile. The house was, most certainly, not fit to go on the market. Eight months later, in the depths of winter, eau de rodent being but an unpleasant memory, we could finally begin to make preparations to lease out our money pit.
Act 3: The Return to Chickens
We had by now narrowed our focus to breeding only show varieties of bantam Polish and Araucanas. Some of our old flock remained as pets, along with turkeys, geese, and ducks acquired variously as lawn candy. Most birds were free range on our 1.3 acres, with the show birds confined to covered pens. A locked poison box was kept in each pen and rarely needed emptying. All was well. There are several other people in our neighborhood who keep a few birds, including a lovely next-door family who acquired nice birds and joined our 4-H club.
Suddenly, the rat population swelled. Poison boxes were still full but the Tomcat poison seemed barely nibbled. An experienced friend recommended, “Just One Bite,” a tasty looking poison with embedded grains. The rats loved it. The poison disappeared again and so did the rats. I diplomatically (I hoped) donated poison to my chicken-keeping neighbor. Whew. Back on track.
In 2013, the situation changed yet again. My neighbor went back to school and I offered to place her birds for her. Once the birds were homed, hungry rat hordes moved to the nearest source of food: us. This was the worst ever! On one night I saw six — count ’em, six — rats running around like they owned the place. (And I was taught that, if you see one, there are 10 more you didn’t see.) Neighbors down the street also discovered rat damage under their houses. Exterminators were called. I felt like Typhoid Mary.
The poison boxes were once again loaded and distributed. Chicken feed and water disappeared, but the bait stayed pristine. My friend was again consulted. Take out the feed so they have to eat the poison, she advised. Laboriously, every night we lugged feed out of all six pens, refilled the bait boxes, and lugged feed back out in the early morning before work. Chicken chores were becoming less fun and my teenage son was far less enthralled with his feathered friends. It worked (sort of), as the bait disappeared.
Indeed, we went through 24 pounds of bait, both the Tomcat and the Just One Bite, in the following three months.
However, while the bait was gone, the rats seemed totally unaffected. Fat rats, baby rats, all cavorting with seeming impunity in and among our birds. Then it hit me. Every morning I had to refill, not only the feed, but all the water! Full waterers at night were empty in the morning. My two remaining tired neurons finally made the connection: what did I put in my water? Apple cider vinegar. What does the vinegar contain, among other things? Vitamin K. How does rat poison work? By destroying the body’s vitamin K stores, thus causing them to slowly bleed to death.
Excellent, I’d spent three months administering the antidote along with the toxin. Fine work indeed. The darn poison itself was getting a lot harder to acquire too. The FDA had decided to ban sales of most of the really effective products to regular consumers. My local Del’s feedstore and local hardware store no longer carried them. I was forced to pick up the Just One Bite in 8-pound cases from a feed store 120 miles away. I had to sign for it too. This would be OK except that it still wasn’t working well. Now I was carrying birds’ water and feed out every night and every morning, a feat which required I give up an extra 45 minutes of sleep before the work day and stumble around in the dark loaded with water that poured all over my shoes. Oh, I was loving raising chickens, you betcha.
We found a few dead rats, to be sure, and the Just One Bite was disappearing nightly by the pound, but the influx of baby rats playing fearlessly in my show cages convinced me I was still fighting a losing battle. To make matters worse, I had a deadline approaching. Soon I would have abdominal surgery, which would necessitate me turning over all the care of the birds to my son Rob for a while. No way was he going to be able to spend that kind of time lugging feed and water before his 6 a.m. Bible Study and 7:30 a.m. school. What to do?
Several things came to light in my frenzied research on how to get ride of rats that did not involve going back to a life without birds.
1. Visits to the affected neighbors informed me that their exterminators had tracked their rats to a neighborhood sewage drain source. (I was so worried they’d target me!) These people paid premium prices for professional exterminators who did exactly what I’d been doing: Put bait boxes all around the areas and when finished, advise their clients to buy their own boxes and keep them full as further sewage incursions were a certainty. (Whew! I wasn’t going crazy: there were indeed plenty of rats coming in faster than I could kill them.)
2. I discovered that the United Kingdom is experiencing a serious outbreak of poison-resistant rats in their sewage system. While I found no such reference in the U.S., it does not seem a far reach to assume that we, too, have rats that have evolved to be able to eat the stuff with minimal damage.
3. I decided I was quite unwilling to try the newer poisons that do not antagonize vitamin K. These poisons have no antidote whereas, with a $9 bottle of vitamin K given daily for a month, a pet that one presumes may have been poisoned can be saved. (I found my own cat eating a single rat this summer, and considering her incompetence, felt that there was no way she would have caught it unless it was already dying. A pill a day for a month and she lives to purr on my pillow for years to come.
4. There are many variations on the vitamin K antagonizing poisons. The trick, I decided, was to find a poison these rats had never seen before and that was tasty enough to compete with the feed. (We continue to put away the vinegar-enriched water at night, though.)
I found that product in First Strike Soft Bait. These soft packets must be stuck tightly on the stakes so the rats cannot carry them away, but they must taste delicious and we’re finally seeing corpses everywhere, even though we’re leaving the feed in at night. I am confident that, for a while at least, the vermin are in retreat. First Strike uses an ingredient called Difethialone at a concentration of 0.0025 percent.
As I mentioned, a product that I have really liked in the past is Just One Bite, which has the active ingredient, Bromadilone.
The bait stations (locking boxes) that I use are made by Tomcat, the Tomcat poison sold with the trap contains bromethalin and has the added advantage of being waterproof if you need to keep bait stations outside. It does seem to be considerably less palatable than the other two, so rats with a choice of goodies may not go for it.
And that’s it. As you may understand, I have written this article with great trepidation, not wanting to be branded as the chicken breeder with the rat problem. Please be constantly aware that, if you do have to treat with poison boxes, animals may still be at risk if they eat poisoned rats. Keep a sharp watch and immediately dispose of dead or dying rodents. Consult your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has been poisoned, and bring a copy of the package so the doctor may ascertain proper treatment.
A recent visit to two admired breeder’s facilities convinced me that I am not alone in having trials dealing with these pests. I hope that my information may prove helpful, or may at least make you feel smug that you don’t have that disgusting problem or that your cats are competent. (If so, you have my envy.) I have written this article in good faith, hoping to save others some of the trials we have been through. I would prefer not to receive a ton of hate mail from PETA members who adore their little rat friends or from naturalist believers who are sure Diatomaceous Earth and probiotics can cure rats, rickets, rabies and a rainy day.
My wish for you: May the words, “Oh, Rats!” come out of your mouth only when you drop the feed bag on your toe.
What other ideas for how to get rid of rats would you add to this list?
Originally published in Backyard Poultry June/July 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.