It’s a showdown for the ages: rat vs. mouse! Who will win the right to squat in your home? Hopefully neither – but to prevent pesky rodents from turning your house into a stronghold, being able to spot the signs of rats or mice early is vital.
When you start seeing signs of a rodent infestation, how can you tell what kind of critter is moving in on your territory? Let’s look at the main differences between two of the most common pests and see how signs show up in a typical residence.
Two main types of rats (Black and Norway) invade homes and each kind has a different approach and lifestyle. There is a third type of rat in the US, the Woodrat, but t is rarely a problem for homeowners.
Black Rat (Rattus rattus)
Originally native to India, the black rat migrated into the Middle East around 1000 BC and hit the Mediterranean around 500 BC. Then it found its way onto ships, and it was all over. Also known as the ship rat, the black rat colonized vast swathes of the globe in short order, hitching rides on passing boats.
Black rats are commonly called palm rats because they like to make nests in the palm trees of Florida. These climbing rodents are also known as roof rats or attic rats. In many parts of the world, they are arboreal – as at home in trees as on the ground. They spend lots of time on the ground, however, and can switch between multiple above-ground dens in their range, usually hidden behind rocks, around the roots of trees, or under dense vegetation.
When it comes to home invasion, black rats prefer the high ground – they’ll crawl up in your attic, chew holes in your cabinetry, and nest in hollow ceilings. Black rats use all kinds of material for their nests, including insulation. They start breeding at age 2-4 months and can have a litter of 3-7 offspring every four weeks. The average lifespan is in the wild is 1-2 years.
Brown Rat (Rattus Norvegicus)
Originally native to China, the common or wharf rat is an excellent swimmer and has made its way to nearly every corner of the earth. It’s thought that these rats originally lived in forested regions, but the street rat now considers itself man’s best – if not friend – cohabitant.
Brown rats are also called water rats or sewer rats and can swim amazingly long distances to reach their chosen destination. Unlike their above-ground brethren, the brown rat prefers to be underground whenever possible, making its nest in burrows or tunnels.
These wary rats may visit homes discreetly under cover of night, or move on in, making a home in a basement or crawl space, or digging under the foundation to make a nest – which is typically constructed of soft shredded paper and grass clippings. Females start breeding at three months of age and deliver litters of approximately seven little ones between 6 to 8 times a year.
Three main kinds of mice may venture into human habitations.
House Mice (Mus musculus)
House and field mice are similar in size and shape, but the house mouse is a true mouse with a long tail while the typical field mouse is usually some species of vole, with a short tail. Many people mistake these voles for house mice with their tails chopped off (perhaps with a carving knife as in the old nursery rhyme).
Field mice don’t mind moist vegetation and can often be found living close to a good water supply, digging small burrows and lining them with fur and fluff. House mice prefer to be dryer and build their nests tucked away in corners with plenty of soft debris gathered to make a deep cup that is comfortable and soft.
Both are voracious scavengers and will chew into food packaging to take off with morsels to be stored in their nest. They are prolific breeders, with females becoming fertile within a month and male mice only a couple of weeks behind. Litters usually number 4 to 6, and a female can birth a new set every three weeks. They live for about a year and a half in the wild.
Deer Mice (Peromyscus maniculatus)
Deer mice, also known as white-footed mice, are common across all of North America and are close in size to the ordinary house mouse. However, if the house mouse is the city mouse, the deer mouse is indeed his country cousin. Deer mice are rarely found in residential houses in urban areas instead preferring rural farms, barns, and granaries to scavenge from.
In the wild, deer mice commonly nest in hollow logs or stumps. In human surroundings, they head for a disused shed or scurry up into a vehicle that has been parked long-term. They may also dig themselves down into the contents of an abandoned dresser drawer, chew into a musty piece of old furniture, or find a cozy cardboard box to call home.
Deer mice are omnivorous, eating insects, seeds, fruit, flowers, and even their own poop. Female mice don’t start breeding until they are almost two months old, but they can have multiple litters each year. Each litter increases in size until the fifth or sixth litter, when litter size stabilizes at around six young per birth. Deer mice can live for almost four years in the wild.
Western Harvest Mice (Reithrodontomys megalotis)
The Western harvest mouse is one of the smallest home invaders. If the Deer mouse dominated the Eastern seaboard, the harvest mouse rules the West – making its home in every imaginable hidey hole from above ground nests to cozy burrows.
The harvest mouse will go into torpor in the deep winter if it is sufficiently cold and it has been well fed. This isn’t hibernating, but rather a suspended state from which it can be readily roused. They are herbivores and will often build a nest with a separate storeroom for gathered food. Harvest mice may hide in pantries or wherever they can find a steady food supply.
Harvest mice breed from early spring to late fall, with a brief hiatus at midsummer, Females can bear litters of 2 to 6, for a total of 40 to 60 live offspring each year – different males can father many in a single litter. These tiny mice have a very short lifespan, with few reaching twelve months of age.
The Differences Between Rats and Mice
There are key differences between rats and mice, and you can learn to spot the signs of one or the other making forays into your home.
The first and most apparent difference between rats and mice are their size.
- Black rats reach a mature size of one to one and a half feet long plus a foot-long or longer tail and weigh nearly half a pound
- Brown rats reach an adult size of just under a foot with a foot-long tail but can weigh up to a pound
- Deer mice can grow up to 5-8 inches long, plus a tail, and can weigh up to almost 4 ounces
- House mice are 3-4 inches long, plus a tail, and weigh around 1.5 ounces at maturity
- Harvest mice are approximately 2-3 inches long with a tail the same length but only weigh about half an ounce
- Brown rat: droppings about three-fourths of an inch long, straight, with rounded ends
- Black rat: droppings about half of an inch long, curved like a sausage, with pointed ends
- Deer mouse: droppings about one-quarter inch long, shaped like rice with pointed ends – can carry hantavirus, so don’t breath the dropping dust!
- House mouse: droppings again about the size and shape of a smaller, one-eighth inch long rice grain, but without the side helping of hantavirus.
- Harvest mouse: droppings even tinier, may look like small specks of dark rolled dirt.
Damage done by rats is often massive as the colony grows, and can wreak wholesale destruction on walls, cabinets, floors, and ceilings. They will chew insulation and electrical cords and even water pipes clean through. The mess is also more readily apparent and can stink horribly.
Damage done by mice is typically more subtle. While they can find chewing on insulation, electrical wires and through walls to be a fun past-time, they are more focused on taking a big supply back to their nest. They, therefore, tend to concentrate on pantry shelves, cupboards, and other places that they can chew into packaging undisturbed.
Wrapping It Up!
Once you know what signs to look for in the saga of these rodents, you can lay a plan to get rid of the invaders and discourage them from ever coming back. Natural solutions and repellants work well for mice and rat infestations, relieving you of the need to kill the small animals, while still preventing them from doing more damage.
Don’t be left wondering what has invaded your home. Find out for sure, and take your power (and your home) back.