Rat catchers share tips and videos of their rodent showdowns

Rats climb up and down in front of a Ring doorbell set up outside a basement apartment in Logan Circle (Video: Tara McCarty/The Washington Post)

Complaints about rats in urban areas skyrocketed during the pandemic. When more people shifted to working from home, rats followed, into some neighborhoods where they hadn’t been seen before. Now, with businesses, schools and offices open again, there’s plenty of trash throughout the city, causing what one expert calls a “rat resurgence” across D.C.

Despite the increase in rat complaints, D.C. health officials say they have not seen an uptick in rat-related illnesses. Still there is the potential for rats to carry and spread to humans — and pets — food poisoning or rat-borne diseases such as leptospirosis.

Here are tips from experts to deal with and prevent rat problems in your home, business and neighborhood.

Assessing rat problems

  • Where do rats live? Rats dwell in burrows — underground tunnels that can be about six feet long. Like human homes, they typically have front and side entrances in case of danger. To a human, their burrow entrances may look like those of groundhogs or squirrels.
  • How many rats do I have around? Bobby Corrigan, a well-known rodentologist, has a formula for estimating rats in a given space: Count the number of burrow holes, divide that number by 3 (the typical number of entrances to one rat family’s burrow) and multiply by 8 (the typical size of a rat family).

Handling trash properly can save a lot of stress — and money

  • Don’t cram in too much. If a can is overflowing, trash is likely to fall out or prevent the lid from closing, giving rats an entry.
  • Take caution with takeout. Wash or rinse any disposable containers before you put them in your outdoor trash cans; food crumbs or sauce drippings will attract rats.
  • Clean, clean, clean. Scrub trash cans regularly with a mix of bleach and water, which eliminates food odors. Trash rooms, compactor rooms and dumpsters should be cleaned regularly at apartment buildings.
  • Timing matters. Experts advise putting your trash out just before pickup, not days in advance to give rats a smaller opportunity to feast.
Bobby Corrigan, a well-known rodentologist, explains how rats burrow, live and thrive on trash in D.C. (Video: Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post)

Rat-proofing your home, yard or business

  • Plug holes in sheds or garages. Put up rat- and weatherproof mesh to fill gaps in fences to keep rats from scurrying yard to yard. Corrigan advises using a specific material — galvanized, 16-gauge, ¼-inch hardware cloth. A strong gauge is needed so that a rat can’t gnaw through it, he said. Make sure it is galvanized so it can withstand rain, snow and humidity and won’t rust or disintegrate over time. And the mesh size is important because a rat can squeeze through a hole that can be chewed in a weak covering. If people don’t follow the specifics, it’s “time and money 100 percent wasted,” he said.
  • Don’t leave out bowls of bird seed or pet food, or fountains full of water. All of these can and probably will draw in rats.
  • Consider what you plant. Rats love liriope and other dense, ground covering such as creeping ivy and pachysandra because it provides great places for them to travel and burrow without being seen by predators.
  • If you work in a restaurant, be vigilant. Experts say restaurants should train people to identify nooks and crannies where rats can get in so that they can be plugged. Make sure food containers are sealed well and not stored on the floor, and don’t leave doors open after deliveries.

Think you know your rat facts? Test your knowledge with our quiz.

Patterdale terrier dogs catch and kill rats around a trash chute in an apartment building in D.C. Crews used hockey sticks to knock the rats down. (Video: Unique Pest Management)

Are dogs and cats at risk with rats?

  • Dogs and cats don’t typically eat rats, so it’s unlikely they would get “secondhand poisoning” from them, said Gerard Brown, the “head rat guy” for D.C. Health. If your pet catches a rat and you’re worried, take it to the vet.
  • But rats do carry parasites. Scott Mullaney, whose business uses trained Patterdale terriers to catch and kill rats, urges dog owners to make sure their pet has an annual leptospirosis vaccine and to keep up to date on flea and tick treatments.
Rats climb up from a dumpster in an alley to a second floor terrace of an office building in D.C. (Video: Unique Pest Management)

What rat poisons, devices and traps can I safely use myself? None.

  • Keep in mind that rats are strong and aggressive, especially if they’re approached when dying or caught in a trap, Corrigan said.
  • Using rat poisons or traps is best done by trained professionals. Homeowners often make mistakes when using these materials, experts said, and it can result in rats’ biting people and the poisoning of dogs, cats or other wildlife.
Crews from D.C. Health search and find a rat in trash cans outside homes in Northeast Washington. They used a shovel to kill it. (Video: Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post)

What should I do if I find a dead rat?

  • If you must dispose of the rat yourself, pick it up with vinyl gloves, a plastic bag or a shovel. Grab it by the tail, drop it in several layers of plastics bags, then double knot them. Put it all in a sealed container.
  • Never use your bare hands to touch a rat, Corrigan said.
  • To report a dead rat, call 311, the city’s service line. Understand, though, that the city will pick up dead rats only in public spaces, such as a sidewalk or an alley.

Editing by Alisa Tang and Ryan Bacic, video editing by Jayne Orenstein, copy editing by Ryan Weber.