Rat Proofing Your House

By Kathy Estibeiro - Sunday, 12 July 1998
The Information Supersewer

Rat Proofing your house
When trying to make your house safe for a rat to roam free, the task for you really is to aim to think like a rat. This means making some decisions that may not seem logical or rational but obviously are to a rat. If you've ever had contact with young children, then you can make a start by thinking like a toddler, but even that is not quite enough.

Probably the most surprising thing to think of is that there is no point saying, "I don't like eating plastic so my rat won't like eating plastic". Oh no. To your rat the most delectable taste on earth is the plastic they use to coat electric cables. This then presents a danger not only to your rat but to you. As soon as your rat bites across live to earth or live to neutral it will be the quickest and easiest way for electricity to pass to the ground. This is not a new way to get rex rats as most cartoons would imply. Anecdotally I have heard of a rat surviving with a burnt lip but mentally he was very damaged and took a lot of care on the part of his owner to nurse him back to confidence. It is best to assume this will be lethal.

The most successful solution I have found for protection of cables is to cover them in garden hose. Again this may not seem logical. Why doesn't the rat bite through the plastic of the garden hose? Who knows. But it has worked for me. It has also indelibly fixed in my mind how to rewire plugs! I usually take the plug off and thread it through the hose but if it is a very long cable the friction becomes too great and you either need to do it with several sections of hose or the other solution would be to slit the hose down its length and re-seal it with tape. However, you then have to bear in mind that the tape will become attractive to your rat's taste buds once more.

This is one of my nightmares since hearing of several households where this has happened. Rats scurrying along the ground look up and see something to leap on to. They do not realise that the surface they will land on will be slippery and sloping inwards into a deep pool of water. Once in the toilet bowl it is highly unlikely they will be able to get out and will eventually drown. Obviously, the simplest answer is to learn to always put the seat down. But if you have a large family or have guests not used to rats it can be a constant case of going and checking whenever someone has used the bathroom. Beware, this behaviour will not be considered normal by your guests! I have tried putting a sign up in the bathroom but even the most tolerant of guests will become immune to the sign after a while and start forgetting again.

Not all rats are keen climbers. But those who do love to climb are often afflicted with the same short term memory problem. They forget they have to come down again. Rats bodies are wonderfully designed for upwards motion. But once they pass the age of about three months or so, their distribution of body weight can make them ... hmm, how shall we say, a bit broad in the beam. But like many humans, they remain blind to this change. They'll carry on going up the way they've always gone only to find that in coming down their hindquarters start to overtake their front and ... Plop! This means that if your rats are out loose somewhere that they can climb to high places you will need to always be on hand to rescue them. They will soon learn to climb once again as soon as you have turned your back, needing rescuing again. Whilst you are learning to think like a rat you will find that while they sometimes seem quite stupid, at others they are amazingly cunning and manipulative.

Rats in high places are usually quite cautious about leaning out over the edge. The occasional rat may have got the "fearless" gene where it seems to have no sense of danger at all but most will not run straight off the edge of a table for instance. But if there are loose papers around the edge of the table they will not realise that their surface is changing solidity and again will run out beyond the edge of the support and Plop once more! Now rats are surprisingly robust when they fall. They often pick themselves up and carry on, with that rather shifty "yes, I meant to do that all along" expression. But sometimes quite serious injuries can result, broken legs, broken teeth, bruising.

Some of the things you may have in high places may be quite valuable to you. But if a rat gets up on a shelf and wants to move along it, she will not care in the slightest that the china ornament in her way may be your great grandmother's heirloom. She will put her snout to the side of it and shoulder past as if it was a tuppeny souvenir. If you have anything valuable, best put it right away. Putting it to a higher shelf can sometimes just make that shelf seem more attractive for the rat to climb to. If two rats have climbed to a high shelf they have the same attitude to meeting another rat. So when thinking like a rat, be quite prepared for one rat to mercilessly shove the other one to the floor.

Some rats can take or leave paper and may lull you into a false sense of security where you leave valuable papers or documents lying around. But there is always a risk that a new rat or even an old rat with a taste for mischief will suddenly decide that paper is a tasty treat. The more precious the book, the more tasty it is.

As with the cable problem, most plastics seem to be attractive to rats. This is especially true of plastic toys, the kind made of softer plastic. Your rat can have eaten quite a large amount of this plastic in a short time before you've noticed. Apart from being upsetting to you, it can kill your rat. I have again heard anecdotal evidence of a rat who died from this and when a post mortem was carried out his stomach was full of plastic.

As your rat roams free you and your fellow humans will present quite a danger to the rat. It is up to you to train your guests to be as careful as you in trying to avoid stepping on rats or their tails. Rats seem particularly careless of their tails as they spin about at your feet trying to get your attention. They often place their tail right under a passing foot. Maybe this is another attention seeking ploy as the squeak they emit if they get trodden on usually gets them plenty of cuddling and reassurance and an apologetic treat or two. But the rats tail is quite capable of being broken by such treatment or at the very least badly bruised or grazed. And his tail is a vital tool for all his balancing activities so needs great protection.

Once again, you have to either pick your guests carefully so that they will not mind being asked to take their shoes off or else be prepared to shut the rats up while people visit. Some rats have a passion for biting toes and I have collected a variety of soft slippers to issue to guests in exchange for shoes. If you don't like your visiting electoral candidate you could have great fun issuing him with a set of fluffy pink houseshoes! He probably won't stay long and will not be coming back.

Do not eat in the presence of free range rats unless you are quite prepared for a hoard of rats suddenly materialising from nowhere and hanging from your sleeves. They will have no compunction for your best blouse or trousers as they drag slices of green pepper in black bean sauce across your best black silk skirt. And if the food you are eating is one that is not good for their diet, be aware that they will take away as much as they can carry far faster than you can eat it so for their sake this may be a time to shut them or yourself out of reach. It may be fun to watch your rat eating cake or ice cream but too much of this will make your rat overweight and will lead to tooth decay. Unlike you, your rat will not be able to get false teeth and will not thank you for having to eat only soft food for the remainder of it's life. If you want to watch your rat eat treats, pasta and rice get just as much enthusiasm in my house as ice cream ever did.

Dark places
Most rats love to go into dark corners and crevices. This is fine with a confident adult rat who will come when called. But if you have a new and nervous rat it is best to close access to areas behind fridges, bookcases etc. It will not help you teach your rat confidence if the first time you let it out you have to drag it out from behind the sofa after removing all the cushions and generally upsetting it further. Even the most bold and confident rat can get days where it seems to have seen a "ghost" and will hide terrified behind the fridge. The best ways I've found to retrieve a rat from this situation are either to sit close to the opening with a blanket over my head presenting an equally attractive dark place, maybe heightening the attraction with the lure of some tasty food. Or sometimes a familiar piece of drainpipe from their cage may be held close to where the rat is hiding so that they run in and can be picked up still held in the tube.

As you can probably see, rat proofing your house just takes a little thought. Each house will present different difficulties but with care can be made safe and fun for your rat to roam in. And seeing your rat running loose in the house is often as entertaining as watching TV.

1998, Squeak!

Last modified, 15 November 1999