Oh, rats!

My tales of home care woe continue this week.  In addition to my three raccoon babies, I now have 12 baby eastern woodrats to care for.  While these little guys do not take up as much room as raccoons, they can be a source of occasional concern.

I recently moved six of the older babies (from two different litters) into a four-story wire mesh cage to make room in the five-gallon aquarium for a new set of six younger babies.  Although these new babies all came in at the same time, I suspect they may have been the result of a blended family due to a fairly substantial size difference between “siblings.” 

Since woodrats are such a slow-growing species and I usually have only two or three at a time, I normally wait until they are older before transferring to the wire cage on my lanai.  But since this large group needed more space and I had a new group of even younger ones coming in, I decided to transfer them sooner than usual. 

When I went to check on the group in the wire cage the next morning, they were nowhere to be found.  Were they so small that they squeezed through the bars of the cage?  Rodents have been known to get through incredibly small crevices.  Expecting a house full of guests in the coming week, could I refrain from mentioning this to my husband?  The rats were more likely to go outside than come into the house when they got older.  But what if they decided to nest on the lanai?  I was trying to decide whether I had a problem with that or not when, the following morning, they were all somehow back in the cage. 

Eastern woodrats are native to the central and eastern US from southern New York to the Florida Keys.  They are sometimes referred to as pack rats for their propensity to build large, elaborate nests using branches and leaves as well as cast-off (or stolen) man-made items.  Unlike invasive species of rats (Norway, black, or so-called roof or attic rats), woodrats prefer to live outdoors in their natural habitat.  They rarely invade houses and cause the destruction that their old-world counterparts are so infamous for.

Woodrats are vegetarians, eating a wide variety of plants, nuts, fruits, vegetables and grains.  I suppose since they do not consume any dairy products, they should be considered vegans, but please don’t hold that against them.  They will not try to ruin your dinner party by loudly proclaiming themselves to be better than the rest of the guests because they only eat food without faces.  They are also not considered a threat to farmers, like some other rodent species that can devastate entire fields of crops.

Invasive rat species have litters of up to 12 pups that are weaned and capable of reproducing themselves by five weeks of age, while mom can be pregnant with her next litter before she even weans the current one.  But the woodrat is not sexually mature until eight months of age.  Litter sizes usually consist of only two to four pups, and only two to three litters per year are produced.  And while the adult males tend to be aggressive toward each other, breeding females and their babies might actually benefit from communal living. 

Most of the orphaned or displaced baby rats received at PRWC are found when trees are being trimmed or removed, especially cabbage palms.  Sometimes burn or brush piles can harbor a family, so take care to check for young before discarding or burning yard waste.

If you consider rodents to be a pest species that must be removed from your property, please consider carefully before using any bait type products.  Most of these contain anticoagulants can take up to a week or two to kill the target species.  For those of you who do not care how the rodent dies, just as long as it vacates your property, this is not the end of the story.  When the rat is in a weakened state or after its death, there is a good chance that it will fall victim to a predator—perhaps your or your neighbor’s dog or cat or a wild hawk or even an eagle.  The predator that eats the poisoned rat will then be poisoned itself, and often die.

Eastern woodrats are a native species here in southwest Florida and have many natural predators, including snakes, birds of prey, raccoons and many other mammals.  As a slow-growing and slow-breeding prey species, their numbers are well maintained naturally.  If you inadvertently disrupt a nest, leave it as close as possible to the original site and mom will care for the babies there or move them to another safe area.  If one or more of the rats has been injured, bring them to PRWC where we will care for them (and try not to lose them!) 

I’m still not sure if the baby rats were in that wire cage all along and just really good at hiding, or if they got back in (to where the food is) the same way they got out.  Either way, could you all just not mention this to my husband, please?  I haven’t told him yet.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Eastern woodrat baby
Eastern woodrat baby
Eastern woodrat babies
Eastern woodrat babies