Don Nettles liked his chair at home. He just couldn’t understand why his dogs liked it so much, too, sniffing it every day. The dogs didn’t have to hang around his chair. They had the run of the place. Even the door was left open so they could roam outside.
One day, Don decided to move his furniture and got a dramatic lesson in why he should pay attention to his dogs—and shut his door.
As he picked up the chair, a rat bolted from under it and flew out the door. Underneath was a pile of birdseed where the rodent had created a cozy home.
The embarrassing part? Don is an exterminator. He kills rats and other pests for a living.
“What can I tell you?” he says. “A cobbler has holes in his shoes.”
As owner of Nettles Exterminating, Don tells this tale to prove that you might be living with rats and not know it. “They learn your habits,” he says. “When you get up in the morning, their whiskers will feel the air movements, and they will be gone before you turn the light on.”
As if that weren’t creepy enough, he says that, in 36 years, he’s never seen Houston’s rat problem so bad. He doesn’t know why, but the past three years have seen a bumper crop of rats, which carry fleas, ticks, and lice and can spread diseases.
“Rats used to be a seasonal business, like termites,” says Don, whose phone used to start ringing about a week before the first cold front blew in. Now, rat calls come year-round.
If you hear scurrying and chewing in your house at night, you probably have rats or raccoons. If it’s in the daytime, you probably have squirrels.
Gina Tomberg didn’t have rats in her house. It was perhaps worse. She parked next to a dumpster at a football field where an unfortunate rat must have climbed up under her car’s hood.
“A few days later we noticed a terrible stench in the garage. My husband looked and said, ‘I think I see an ear,’ and there was fur everywhere.”
Gina can laugh now at the horror of it all, but at the time, she says, “My dread was that I had to go to the first day of school with horseflies buzzing around the grille.” They eventually found a kind mechanic to clean things up.
Catherine Arlinghaus discovered years ago in her backyard that she had been providing a free daily birdseed buffet to rodents.
At the time, the City of Bellaire gave out free rat poison—it doesn’t anymore—and Catherine put some out. She also ended the birdseed and hasn’t had rats since.
“One day there was a rat eating that bird food. He looked at me like, ‘Lady, you’re interrupting.’ He was so bold. He ambled back to the shrubs, I walked by, and he ambled back out.”
Not providing food is the best way to prevent rats. Don’t feed pets outside, tightly seal pet food and garbage, and be wary of feeding birds and squirrels. Sweeping up dropped fruit helps, too, as does sealing around house vents.
Never put loose poison outside where children, other wildlife, or pets can get it. Even loose poison in the attic is dangerous because rodents can carry it outside and drop it. Hire an exterminator ($100 to $150), or buy an enclosed bait station (under $20) instead.
Don’t assume that rats will leave the house for water after eating poison. That’s an old wives’ tale, say some experts who recommend traps instead.
At the pest control store, Solutions, the manager recommends the $5 Big Snapee rat trap because it’s easy to set and twice as quick as a standard trap. For sensitive souls who want to release rats elsewhere, Southwest Fertilizer sells a live trap for $18. (The Houston SPCA considers rats good pets, but they only adopt out domesticated ones, not wild ones.)
The Bellaire Police Department loans out free traps, but they are too big for most rats. Most municipalities consider rats a property owner’s issue, unless the rats are the result of code violations.
In West University, animal control officer Daniel Paripovich has no fondness for rats, but he urges residents to leave possums and raccoons alone because they eat rats.
As for Don, he calls himself an animal lover, with a house full of dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, fish, and even a parrot. But he doesn’t want rats.
And he doesn’t, he thinks, have any.