Oh, Rats: An Animal Chaplain's Suggestions for Unwanted Houseguests

Oh, Rats: An Animal Chaplain's Suggestions for Unwanted Houseguests

Getty/Liudmila Chernetska

What is one to do with rats in the house? Explore our animal chaplain’s ideas on how to ethically rat-proof your home.

“I have such a stupid request, but if you would have 10 minutes to talk sometime today, I’d be very grateful,” my friend texted. My curiosity was piqued. I hadn’t heard the word stupid in quite some time, especially from this dear friend whom I admired. Something must be really bothering her.

We arranged to talk shortly thereafter. After a quick and joyous hello, her voice quieted. “We have rats,” she revealed. “I need help. It was one thing when they were in the basement, but now they are coming up into the house, and they chewed through some wiring. The handyman said it is a fire hazard and I should call an exterminator.”

“I’m heartbroken,” she expressed. “I don’t want to hurt them. Any ideas?”

For the next 20 minutes, we discussed the challenges of interspecies living, especially when unwanted house guests arrive and start to cause damage to your shared abode. We talked about our sadness about even having to have the conversation in the first place. We lamented our broken-heartedness at the idea of summoning exterminators. We explored the tension of allowing some animals we love into our homes (like cats and dogs) while others we seek to evict. I shared my favorite tips for a peaceful resolution, and we also considered the worst-case scenario.

Reconsidering Rats

Rodents usually get a bad rep, but my friend and I agreed they are worth our ethical consideration.

Rats are highly intelligent and capable of engaging in metacognition, the ability to make decisions while considering what one knows and doesn’t know. They are very social with each other (and sometimes with humans). Many rats show empathy and compassion for others. According to the findings of one research study, “Rats chose to help each other out of traps, even when a stash of delicious chocolate chips was on the line.” And would you believe they laugh when tickled?

I realize the complexity in reporting these studies—most interesting facts about animal empathy and cognition are learned by keeping animals captive. This often includes experimenting on them in ways that can only be called cruel. In fact, over 100 million rats and mice are used in research labs in the U.S. each year, as they are unprotected by our Animal Welfare Act. (If this news makes you feel driven to action, consider supporting organizations such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and their initiatives to replace animal testing with more compassionate, modern methods.)

Of course, amazing facts about rat cognition and empathy don’t necessarily mean everyone wants to live with them as unwanted houseguests. As my friend so eloquently noted in an email to me after our initial call, “I realize that there is a hierarchy of ‘acceptable’ species built into my education as a human. Even when we recognize and try to honor the sentience of all life forms, there is, in many of us, this deeply entrenched fear of certain beings.”

“A fluffy mammal with a round face and round eyes may be adorable, but pointy-nosed beings with naked tails, like possums and rats, are ‘scary,’” she wrote.

She continued, “It's an absolutely aesthetic thing, irrational and illogical, but deeply ingrained. I've managed to overcome my issues with opossums! I can now see their beauty and their value.”

“But the rat issue is harder,” she admitted. “Mice are so small; they're cute and manageable. Opossums stay in the garage or under the porch, boundaries I can deal with.”

“Rats transgress those boundaries and make me feel uncomfortable. They're mouse-like, but too big. They're opossum-like, but inside. I've been educated to fear them as dirty and disease-bearing. They aren't ‘cute.’ How damned is any being that isn't aesthetically pleasing?”

This confession probably rings true for many of us. We want to be compassionate. And we also want certain animals to leave our homes.

Tips for Encouraging Rats to Leave

The key to getting rid of unwanted house guests is to “rodent-proof” your living areas.

First, make sure you aren’t leaving food or garbage out. Invest in tightly sealed containers for pantries and basement spaces. Also, don’t tempt rats by leaving out pet food dishes all day for cats and dogs to “free feed.” Instead, after your animals eat a meal, put away their dishes. (I realize this might be an adjustment for some of your animal companions!)

Second, survey each room at floor level. Look for any spaces where the rats might be getting in. Keep in mind they are remarkably flexible and can squeeze into holes the size of a quarter! Use cans of spray foam to fill gaps around pipes in kitchen and bathroom cabinets, as well as around radiators and baseboard heating elements. Alternatively, you can insert tightly packed steel wool. (You’ll need to check these areas regularly since rodents will eventually pull out the packing.) Make sure to check behind your refrigerator and dishwasher; large holes are commonly found around plumbing or electric connections.

Third, make your home smell unattractive to rats. Curiously, dryer sheets seem to be kryptonite for many rodents. Place a sheet in drawers, cabinets, and boxes to deter critters. Mothballs, peppermint-soaked cotton balls, or ground black pepper can also be used if dryer sheets activate your own senses too much.

Fourth, invest in pest repellents. These are excellent for spaces you don’t spend much time in, such as basements, crawlspaces, garages, automobiles, and campers. We use a battery-powered style that flashes lights and makes a loud audible beep whenever the unit senses motion. (We recently discovered that a mama mouse had moved into my Jeep and gave birth in my glove compartment!) Do a web search for “under hood animal repellent strobe light.”

Managing the Worst-Case Scenario

If you try all these remediations and you are still stuck, you might turn to thoughts of traps or exterminators. This is not an easy turn.

While my friend was able to make some changes in her home and evict a few rats, she was ultimately unable to get all of them to leave. So she resorted to adding traps into her remediation process. She reflected, “I actually saw one of my rat guests today, and it about broke my heart. Poor thing was probably just hungry and wanting to be somewhere warm and dry in all this rain.”

“I don't know how to share this habitat together,” she told me. “There's no way around the fact that having them chew up the wiring in my house is dangerous to my family. There's no way around the fact that the boundaries I set in my humanness are dangerous to theirs.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity to examine my irrational, aesthetic prejudices. To interrogate the origins of my fears and own that they're located in a worldview I've inherited and not in any objective ‘truth.’ Thanks for helping me to find a way forward that does the least harm possible.”

What is the path forward with the least amount of harm?

Live traps are thought to be the most humane, and glue traps are the cruelest. (I will spare you the details of the latter.) You can purchase individual “humane live traps” from a hardware store or create your own using your garbage can and the following guidelines from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA): “Place dry oatmeal and a dab of peanut butter in a plastic 50-gallon drum. Set the drum in an area frequented by rats. Lean a flat piece of wood against the rim of the drum or construct a stairway of books or bricks that the rats must climb in order to get to the rim. The rats will jump into the drum for the food but will be unable to climb back up the steep, slippery surface. Remember, check the trap hourly and disable it when this isn’t possible and during cold weather! When a rat has been caught, put on heavy gloves, take the garbage can outside, and release him or her according to the instructions above.”

PETA suggests that rats are released within 100 yards of where they were caught so they are in familiar territory.

If you can’t stomach doing the live trapping yourself, then choose a humane wildlife removal company using this guide from the Humane Society of the United States.

Want more help dealing with “pests”? Read A Spiritual Approach to Pest Management.

Oh Rats An Animal Chaplains Suggestions for Unwanted Houseguests

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.