No, that's not Jack Frost nipping on the wires in the basement. It's the time of year when furry critters sneak inside homes. They're seeking food, water...

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No, that’s not Jack Frost nipping on the wires in the basement.

It’s the time of year when furry critters sneak inside homes. They’re seeking food, water and shelter from the cold.

A few winters ago, a squirrel made its way through the roof into Kirby Upjohn’s Kansas City home. Sure, the fuzzy-tailed animals seemed cute outdoors, but Upjohn was “creeped out majorly” when one was rooting through her attic.

“It sounded loud, like it was having a big party,” she says. “It was running, flopping and jumping all over the place.”

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Rodent control pros and cons


Discs: The newest trap on the block has a snapping mechanism inside so you don’t have to see or touch a dead mouse. An indicator on this hockey-puck-like contraption lets you know you caught a critter. But it’s not as effective as an old-school snap trap.

Glue boards: These often are used to trap small mice that elude snap traps. Some people also prefer them because they have no chemicals or snapping mechanisms that can hurt pets or children. But others consider them barbaric because the rodents struggle when they stick to the base and die slowly.

Live traps: They’re the most humane way to catch a mouse, but here’s the dilemma: Where do you release the rodents? Give mice their freedom in your yard, and they will return to your house. Let them loose somewhere else, and you’re guilty of making them someone else’s problem.

Old-school snap traps: They’re effective at killing mice, and they’re the cheapest trap out there. But they leave a mess, and their snapping mechanisms can hurt people and pets.

Poison bait: Pellets kill rodents. But the poison is dangerous around children and pets. Also, mice often die behind walls, where you can smell them but can’t remove them.

Ultrasonic generators: The good news: These deterrents don’t look rodent-related. Your friends and neighbors might mistake them for plug-in air fresheners. The bad news: Though many people swear by them, studies have shown they’re ineffective.

Sources: Judy Loven, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; Chuck Dockery, Terminix; Jeff Archer, Critter Control; Laura Simon, Humane Society of the United States

Upjohn called Critter Control of Kansas City to drive out the squirrel. The company uses Jack Russell and Patterdale terriers to detect and chase out pests. The squirrel ran out the same hole it had entered.

Bats and raccoons also can make their way through small roof openings. (Wood-shake shingles are especially susceptible.) Rats can squeeze through gaps the size of a quarter. Mice, the most frequent winter pest, require holes only the size of a dime.

In addition to being contortionists, mice are like circus performers in other ways. They can climb rough surfaces such as a home’s exterior or vertical pipes. They can balance on thin wires. They can jump more than a foot vertically. They can swim.

Mice make their homes in insulation, paper and furniture stuffing, says Judy Loven, Indiana director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at Purdue University. They make their presence known by their dark-colored droppings that resemble wild rice. Rat feces looks similar but larger.

Other signs of rodents include gnawed food boxes; oily grayish-black marks along walls; stray pieces of food; patches of fur; and slight sounds of movement in pantries, ceilings and walls. Sprinkling flour on a surface and checking for footprints is another way to detect a mouse.

“It’s important to address a potential rodent problem as quickly as possible,” Loven says, “because they reproduce rapidly.”

Not only do they spread disease, they damage property. They tear up insulation and gnaw door frames and furniture. They also can chew through electrical wires, causing fires.

Cleanup


It’s important to do a deep cleaning of cabinets, countertops, floors and tables after a rodent infestation. Urine can leave an odor and lead to salmonella, which causes food poisoning. Dander and excrement can aggravate allergies.

Clean affected areas with a household disinfectant or a mixture of bleach and water to clean surfaces. Wear rubber gloves.

Pest-proof your home


The goal is to block rodents’ access to shelter, food and water.

• Seal holes around your home’s foundation, dryer vents, pipes, cables and wires. Stuff them with steel wool or wire mesh before sealing with caulk or foam.

• Check the rooftop along the eaves and gutters for holes. Seal them with metal flashing.

• Have your chimney properly capped.

• Prune trees away from the house.

• Remove piles of debris, stone and bricks.

• Store firewood as far from the home as possible, and keep it off the ground.

• Sweep up spilled birdseed under feeders each day.

• Cover compost piles.

• Keep garage doors closed.

• Fix water leaks.

• Use metal weatherstripping under doors leading outside.

• Place food and seed (especially pet food) in metal, glass or ceramic containers. Popcorn tins and metal trash cans work well.

Mice don’t discriminate between new and old homes. And cats and dogs don’t prevent or deter rodents. They just alert people that they’re there.

Pest-control professionals usually inspect homes for free. Costs can vary, so ask for an estimate before agreeing to any work.

The average home invasion is one to 10 mice, says Jeff Archer, owner of Critter Control. When it comes to mice (not other rodents), it’s fine for homeowners to fix the problem themselves, he says, “if they do it right.”

Bait for traps should be textured. Chunky peanut butter works, Archer says. “A lot of people put too much on, so the traps won’t trigger,” he says. And cheese tends to dry out too fast, so the mice will lose interest.

More people are starting to use traps that let mice live, which is the method the Humane Society of the United States recommends. The mice should be released in an area with old outbuildings and barns.

It’s best to get the permission of the property owner, according to Laura Simon, field director for the society’s urban wildlife program, based in New Haven, Conn.

“You don’t want to move them to somebody else’s yard,” Simon says. “Then they become somebody else’s problem.”