Are Roof Rats Lurking in Your Attic?

Roof rats like to climb and often find themselves in attics. (Illustration by Matt Mukerjee)

Roof rats like to climb and often find themselves in attics. (Illustration by Matt Mukerjee)

When Nancy McDonald found roof rats in her attic last winter, she says she "freaked out."

The Lutz, Florida, homeowner promptly called highly rated Rick Ricker Termite & Pest Control Inc. in Odessa, Florida. Three months later, she says, the last rat had been trapped and they haven't come back.

"Some people say they don't hurt anything, but you know what, I didn't want them up there," McDonald says. "I was not happy with them up there."

Roof rats are natural climbers

Roof rats - also called black, fruit or citrus rats - are one of the top household pests in Florida, according to Bill Kern, associate professor of entomology and nematology with the University of Florida.

They're called roof rats because they are natural climbers and prefer to nest in trees or attics. They chew on wires, ducts and insulation. In the United States, they are found mainly in the Gulf Coast states and California.

One female can produce 40 offspring a year, and those babies can produce their own litters within four months.

Ricker says roof rats can move into a home undetected, particularly if the attic is well insulated so the homeowner can't hear them. He likens them to squirrels in that they do their foraging outside.

"They get brazen when they overpopulate," he says, adding that one customer had a roof rat nesting on the cover of his Harley-Davidson.

Hire a pest control professional

Getting rid of them requires sealing all access points, removing food and nesting areas, and trapping the remaining rodents.

Exterminators have their own preferences regarding the proper order. Some trap, then seal. Others seal, then trap.

Dan Soles, owner of highly rated Soles Exterminating in Seminole, Florida, does the latter. "The rule of thumb is any hole one-half inch in diameter," he says. "If they can squeeze their head through, they can squeeze their bodies through."

The No. 1 access point in most slab homes is the Freon line that runs from the air conditioner compressor on the ground up the exterior wall and into the attic, says Mike Ahles, environmental control technician with the St. Petersburg Sanitation Department, which offers free rat control to residents.

Once the building is sealed, Soles sets traps instead of using bait inside. Ricker agrees with that approach. With bait, "You will wind up with a dead rat and you won't be able to find it," he says.

Although homeowners' first impulse is to clean when they find rats, Ahles prefers they keep everything the same, capture as many rats as possible, then clean. "If you disrupt everything, it is going to scatter them," he says.

Costs vary widely. McDonald's rat abatement was covered under her $360 annual pest control contract. Soles says he charges about $95 for a basic job.

CHECK OUT: Angies's List Guide to Mice and Rats

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We bought a house in FL and when we made an offer on a house that was accepted, we went ahead with a home inspection. There were roof rats in the attic. I did some research on them and found they are not relatively innocent little creatures like the little field mice we have in DE. They eat through wiring, causing danger of fire in some cases, and the way they get water is by actually chewing through plastic and even METAL piping from air conditioning system drain pipes and other pipes in the house. If you want to really see something scary look them up on the internet and see actual photos of what they do...shocking! Our realtor, who also lives in FL said she had an expensive roof put on her house, then a few months later she saw a leak in a bedroom ceiling. Turns out it wasn't the roof...a roof rat had gotten access to her attic from a conduit that ran up the outside of her house and chewed through a two inch hole in a pvc pipe that held water, and that's what caused the leak...Ugh!

Interesting, ultimately useless fact: Rats can fall five stories with no ill effects.

We were having a staff meeting to discuss our recent stories. "Roof rats" was the topic for a long long time. We all agreed that we're VERY glad to not have these pests in Indianapolis.

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