News > Urban rats: Are there really more than there used to be?
Urban rats: Are there really more than there used to be?
July 12, 2020
City-dwellers report seeing more rats this year.
What does it mean?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, everyone from The New York Times to the CBC have been talking about rats: From feverish reports of aggressive, possibly cannibalistic sewer rats getting bolder in broad daylight to reports of exterminators being overloaded with requests to deal with rats, it’s easy to think that those of us living in cities are about to be overwhelmed by a plague of vicious rodents.
But don’t panic just yet. While the changes to human behaviour as a result of the coronavirus have in fact changed some rat behaviours, none of us – at least in southern Ontario – need to worry that the rats have gotten out of control.
Rats were a problem last year, too.
You might not have noticed it, but spring/summer 2019 saw quite a few stories about how the rats in Toronto and other Ontario cities were getting out of control: Homeowners who were used to contending with raccoons and skunks were now seeing rats who appeared bolder than before and Toronto Public Health reported they’d received twice as many reports of rodents in 2019 as they had in 2012.
Why are rats an increasing problem in southern Ontario cities? Much of the blame can be placed on higher-density living: When you have hundreds or thousands of people living in high-rise condos on a site that previously had only single-family or low-level multi-family residential dwellings, you’re going to get more pests of all kinds, thanks to increased garbage and increased opportunity. That higher density also tends to lead to an increased number of restaurants, which have long been a rat magnet in cities. (And it’s important to remember that higher-density condo developments aren’t restricted to downtown Toronto: We’ve seen increased density across southern Ontario in the past 10 years.)
There aren’t more rats.
They’re just acting differently.
Scholars say that rodents have been around for 55+ million years, but the rat most North Americans think of when they think of a pest rat, the brown rat, has probably been around for 500,000 years, with the first confirmed sighting in North America in the mid-1700s. Rats have had an interesting evolutionary history, and have some unique adaptations and behaviours, and the average person would probably know a lot more about them if they didn’t spend so much time eating our food, trying to take up residence in our homes, and being disease vectors.
One of the reasons rats are so successful in virtually any environment is that they are creatures of habit: They choose a neighbourhood, find a reliable food source and a safe pathway from their nests to their food sources – and then stick to that routine. They generally stay within a 1km radius of their home and you don’t hear a lot of stories of migratory or far-reaching rats.
The pandemic, of course, has changed all that: Rat populations which had depended on a particular couple of restaurants, or on the refuse from an office cafeteria, suddenly found those food sources stopped abruptly at the end of March. And the one time rats are known to become migratory or move far beyond their territory is when they need to find a new food source. So the urban rats who’d been living in the alley behind a bunch of restaurants started to move to the next-best source of garbage-based food: Higher-density residential areas.
At the same time, the reduced car traffic and regular activity meant that normally-skittish rats felt more comfortable exploring sidewalks – again, driven not by aggressive cannibalism but a search for food – so there were more sightings.
Okay, but are there MORE?
The short answer is: Probably not. Here at Apex, we’re seeing increased requests for rat control in residential properties, but decreased requests from commercial or hospitality properties. And the residential-based rat colonies are newish, not well-established, and generally not large. So while rats have moved, the total population isn’t exploding.
(Of course, it goes without saying that if you do start seeing evidence of rats on your property, you should definitely call a pest control provider before that new colony gets a chance to really settle in..)