The rats are coming. Here’s how we can keep them away.

(Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

It was twilight Sunday. Daydreaming about something else, I began wheeling our trash bin from the backyard to the curb in anticipation of the regular Monday-morning pickup. Suddenly I felt something heavy and sharp hit the back of my left calf.

It was a corpulent brown rat.

Where had this foul beast come from? I had never seen a rat in our suburban neighborhood before. But a block and a half away begins a restaurant district. Because of the novel coronavirus, many of these businesses are closed or have dramatically reduced service — and, with it, trash output. Our unwelcome guest was probably fleeing famine in his usual habitat for the feast in our backyard.

In this, we are far from unique. The coronavirus shutdown has led to increases in rat sightings across the country — dumpster-diving in Chicago, swarming the French Quarter in New Orleans, turning cannibal in New York.

The coronavirus has created a perfect storm for residential rat infestations. Just as restaurant trash generation has dropped, people are producing more food waste at home. Streets are emptier, emboldening normally “shy” rats to go exploring. Rats “can do a block, or two, or three in a night easily,” says Bobby Corrigan, a rat-control consultant for New York and other cities. “And then voilà — now they’re in people’s yards.”

They can bring a host of dangers. Among the most common, according to Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist at the National Pest Management Association, are food-borne illnesses such as salmonella. Rodent urine can also worsen allergies and asthma, especially in children. Three years ago, an outbreak of rat-borne leptospirosis in the Bronx left a man dead.

I was only partially aware of this infectious potential when I collided with the rat. That alone was enough to prompt an instinctive, horrified scream. But I was better informed — and even more disgusted — when, after the trash pickup, we found another rat dead at the bottom of the bin. This was no longer an aberration, but a problem.

I had been so focused on the coronavirus that I hadn’t even thought about the imminent danger literally under my feet. Was another, growing threat going unnoticed and unaddressed because of covid-19?

“I’m extremely concerned,” Chelsea Gridley-Smith, director of environmental health at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told me. Because local health departments are focused on covid-19, many lack the resources to tackle the simultaneous spread of rats. Several city health departments are unable to continue even their normal pest management, let alone expand to address the surges into new areas.

No neighborhood is safe. Contrary to popular perception, rats are not just an urban problem or a companion to poverty. “Hotel, apartment, private home, mansion, you name it,” Corrigan says. “Rats do not discriminate.”

Beyond the current challenge, rodent experts also worry about what happens when the country starts to reopen. Terminix biologist Angela Tucker warns that people could face unpleasant surprises when they return to workplaces where rats will have had months to flourish unmolested. Especially troubling are shuttered restaurants, which, even if they were rodent-free in February, might not pass rat inspections a month from now.

The good news is that there are ways to mount an anti-rat resistance. Seal gaps under doors or other entrance points into your home. (Rats can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter.) Use the garbage disposal, if you have one, to limit the food waste you’re putting in the trash can. Make sure your trash stays in tightly sealed, lidded bins. Avoid keeping yard debris, like leaf piles or construction materials, where rats can hide.

Know the signs of rat infestations. Look for droppings and gnaw marks. Check around dense vegetation or shrubs, because rats like to dig burrows in areas with ground cover. Keep a keen eye out at night, when the rats are most likely to be active. And be vigilant about cleaning. Rats “basically pee everywhere they go,” Gridley-Smith says.

If you see a rat in an alley or public street, call your local health department or animal control. Gerard Brown, program manager for the District’s rodent control division, stresses: “We want to let people know that we are still open, that they can call 311, and we will respond in 24 hours.” If only my own jurisdiction had been that responsive.

And if you want to avoid an experience like mine, make noise — rustle something, jangle some keys — as you approach an area where you fear rats might be present, as the sound will help scare them away. On that night, I had silently approached the trash cans at just the hour when my nemesis was gearing up for his evening exploits.

The coronavirus pandemic has everyone worried enough. I recount this tale not to create extra stress but to prevent it. If raising awareness and sharing expert tips can help keep vermin at bay, then perhaps I will have confronted a rat so that you don’t have to.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece

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