How the pandemic inadvertently created a war among rats

rat coronavirus pandemic war
Photo via Airwolfhound/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

With dining establishments still shuttered across much of the country (or operating with limited dining room capacity or exclusively with takeout and delivery services) due to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the unexpected consequences involves rat populations. Yes, rats—the pests which are normally found in restaurant kitchens and in alleyways, sustaining on what they scavenge in trash cans and dumpsters—are suddenly going hungry.

The result is a potential public health nightmare, as the rodents are increasingly becoming more bold and aggressive. Urban rodentologist Bobby Corrigan points out that the rats are becoming aggressive toward each other—not people. “They’re simply turning on each other,” Corrigan recently told the New York Times

“They are going to war with each other, eating each other’s young in some populations and battling each other for the food they can find,” Corrigan continued. “But the rats that live and eat in residential blocks probably haven’t noticed a single bit of difference during the shutdown.”

“Some jurisdictions have reported an increase in rodent activity as rodents search for new sources of food,” added the CDC. “Environmental health and rodent control programs may see an increase in service requests related to rodents and reports of unusual or aggressive rodent behavior.”

But even if the rats aren’t becoming aggressive with people, they still pose serious health risks. In some places like New York City and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, rats have taken to empty streets in packs to search for food. Though rats might not carry COVID-19 (as far as scientists are currently aware), they can be host to a number of other diseases. The rats themselves can also carry parasites such as ticks, fleas, and mites, all of which can spread disease to humans.

Among the most common are food-borne illnesses such as salmonella, according to Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist at the National Pest Management Association. Rat urine is also known to negatively impact allergies and asthma, particularly in young children.

How to eliminate conditions that attract rats and other rodents

The CDC outlines three simple rules you can take to prevent human exposure to rodent diseases: 

  • Seal up holes inside and outside the home, including around doors, fireplaces, floors, attics, basements and crawl spaces, and pipes.
  • Trap up rodents around the home to help reduce populations—the CDC recommends snap traps in lieu of glue or live “humane” traps.
  • Clean up rodent food sources around the home and workplace by not leaving dirty dishes on counters and in sinks; immediately cleaning up any food spills or messes; keeping food sealed in thick plastic or metal containers; not leaving pet food out overnight; and keeping items such as compost bins, trash cans, and bird feeders far from your home.

“You’d be smart to ask yourself: How do I do my trash and does how I do it completely deny a wild animal?” added Corrigan. “And look at the base of your door. Get out a ruler to see if there’s a space below the door—half an inch will let them in.”

Sources: CDC, NY Times, Washington Post, WWLTV

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