8 Places Rats Go During Winter (And When They Return)
Winter is hard for most rats due to the limited availability of food and just how problematic low temperatures are. Survival is their only concern, putting breeding worries on the back burner and looking for warmth, food, and water.
If you are wondering where rats go during the winter, the answer is they look for somewhere safe and warm. In the wild, this might include caves, burrows, and tree hollows. In urban settings, rats will look for warmth in sewers, sheds, attics, and basements.
Keep reading to learn how rats prepare for the winter, what they look for in shelter, and what to do if they are choosing your home to be in the winter. Let’s get to it!
How Rats Survive During Winter
Rats do not hibernate or even put on a lot of extra bulk in preparation for winter, which leads to a lot of challenges for them.
As a result, rats are active throughout the entire year, which can cause problems for homeowners, especially in cities with large rat populations.
Lots Of Rats Don’t Survive The Cold
To be blunt, the majority of rats will not survive the winter. In addition to not having high rates of survival during the winter, they cut down on breeding pretty significantly during winter.
Rats have such a tough time surviving cold weather for a wide variety of biological reasons as a result of their small size.
The first is that rats are so small and can only put on so much extra weight that they can’t rely on that to get them through the winter.
The next reason is that it takes a lot of energy for rats to produce enough heat to keep themselves warm, and with the limited food availability rats have, this can be tough to meet.
In addition to the low survival rates during the winter, they no longer spend energy on breeding either which means that rat populations will be the lowest during the winter.
However, this only applies to rats forced to live in winter conditions. With rats adapting to living in heavily populated areas, some of them will live indoors with both heat and a steady supply of food that can help them maintain winter populations.
Hoarding Food Ahead Of Time Allows Rats To Survive Winter
One way that rats prepare for winter is by building a horde of food in their burrow or nest. Rats need significantly more food to stay warm and might eat twice as much per day as they do during the summer.
By scavenging and building up a supply of food ahead of time they can stay in the warmth of their nest without the need to risk a venture into the cold.
Rats, as you might know, can eat just about anything and squeeze into small spaces which means that is very important for you to secure your food and trash to prevent them from becoming a rat’s winter snack.
The majority of this food will be found and stored during mid to late fall which is one of the most active times of year for rats.
Rats are great at Finding A Warm And Safe Shelter
The most important aspect of a rat’s survival plan is finding good shelter. The shelter must protect from the elements including being warm, keeping out snow and rain, as well as providing protection from predators such as owls.
To make their shelters warmer and more hospitable, rats will build nests with whatever soft materials they can find. This might include paper, cloth, cardboard materials, or natural materials they have available.
Rats only need a very small opening to squeeze through, which can be as small as a quarter for small rats, and twice that size means that even a large rat to squeeze through.
From one perspective this is an incredible survival adaptation that provides rats with a lot of options. However, for the average person, this only means that rats can get into homes and other areas you don’t want them with ease.
There are many places in your yard that rats can use to survive the winter. Read up on the 8 main reasons why rats are in your yard in our guide if you’d like to learn more!
8 Places Rats Go Might During The Winter
Below is a compilation of some of the most common places for rats to go during the winter, and what makes them so appealing to take shelter in.
Also remember this is not an exhaustive list, as rats can squeeze just about anywhere and are one of the most intelligent rodents capable of problem-solving and finding creative solutions.
Sewers Are A Common Shelter For Rats during winter
In an urban setting, sewers provide a well-protected haven for rats, and large cities can easily house millions of rats for the winter. Sewers are probably one of the most likely places for rats to be year-round.
Sewers provide food and shelter for the rats, making them an ideal environment for the rats. Rats have very few predators that can make it into sewers and a wide variety of food options are available to them.
Being underground means that sewers are well insulated during the winter and protect them from the winter cold.
On top of all this, rats thrive in a semi-aquatic environment. Rats are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath for three minutes which allows them to navigate sewer systems with ease, and can even use the pipes to enter your home.
This is one of the reasons why cleaning up after rats have been in your home is so important because they can carry all kinds of nastiness.
Rats Can Make Their Own Burrows during winter
Rats are not only excellent swimmers but efficient burrowers as well. In wild environments, they can create burrows underneath rocks, logs, and other structures to create their own winter homes.
Rats use structure to provide a solid structure to protect them from the elements but are capable of creating tunnels even without a backing structure.
Rats can live in colonies with up to several hundred animals but for burrows, it is much more likely to be a dozen animals or less.
Rats can burrow for any number of reasons including searching for food, creating a nest, and of course for shelter.
Of all the options available to rats for winter survival, burrows are the least likely to be successful and rats will often leave to search for food and move into a better shelter if they find it.
Rats Might Explore Caves During Winter
Rats will choose a cave system for their winter home because it offers protection from the elements and requires little effort.
The easier it is for a rat to find shelter the more likely they are to survive. The energy saved in searching for or creating a place to live can be then spent searching for food and building up a reserve for winter.
Caves can also house large colonies from dozens to hundreds or even thousands in a large cave system.
Depending on the system, caves may even lead to easy sources of food which can be crucial for a rat’s winter survival strategy.
Any kind of cave system can be an effective shelter for rats to survive the harsh winter environments, and hold a wealth of resources similar to what a sewer system provides.
A Tree Hollow Might House A Rat’s Nest
A tree hollow is the last natural shelter that we’ll mention in this list and is one that’ll hold only a small colony of rats. Tree hollows can vary in size, but is pretty unlikely you’ll see more than a half dozen or so rats at a time calling one home.
Tree hollows make great places for rats to create small nests and are high off the ground protecting them from flooding due to rain or melting snow.
Trees can also have food for the rats on or near them which is incredibly important for any rat that is going to make it through the winter. Stocking up on food can only go so far and rats will resort to foraging part way through the winter and trees might have seeds or nuts that can be a quick snack.
Sheds And Barns Can Get Infested With Rats during winter
If there is one thing that rats have done well, it’s adapting to coexisting with humans. Rat populations mirror here human populations due to the shelter and food available to them.
In large cities like New York rat populations have been estimated to be anywhere around 2 million according to a research article published in Significance. Ultimately, this speaks to just how elusive and well-adapted rats are to the urban environment.
Even in less urban environments, rats will still live in man-made structures, especially barns. Barns make a place where rats will congregate and easily survive through the winter if unimpeded.
Ask any farmer and they’ll tell you that rats along with their mice relatives will cause havoc in any seed or grain being stored, and will chew through anything they can.
Similarly, any shed will provide a safe place for rats to be, and depending on what is stored they can provide food to the rats.
Heated barns and sheds create such a safe environment that you might even find rats breeding in these places, unlike the ones who are left out in the cold. This will only cause a growing issue as the rat population increases on your property.
Rats Can Find Food And Shelter In The Garage
The average garage provides more than enough places for rats to hide unnoticed and on top of that might even provide easy access into your home to find food.
Garages are designed to protect vehicles from the weather, keep them above freezing temperatures, and general weather-protected storage. To a rat, this sounds like a much better alternative than living in a tree in freezing temperatures.
Depending on what is stored in the garage, rats may have food and nesting material to get them through the winter and may not be noticed right away.
Be sure to check for any signs of rats including chewing damage, droppings, or any movements or scratching sounds coming from the garage. Rats are most active at night and this is when you are most likely to notice any movements or signs of live rats in the garage.
To prevent rats from digging through your garbage in the garage the DC Health Services recommends using metal or heavy-duty plastic cans with tight-fitting lids and working to trap rats during the winter to limit populations come springtime.
Rats Might Dig Into The Basement during winter
Basements are another place in your home where rats might be spending their winters and maybe even year-round.
Being under the ground gives rats the advantage of being able to tunnel and use any gaps in windows or pipes to get into your basement where they’ll find anything they need. Unfinished basements are especially susceptible to rats finding their way in and using a corner to stay safe.
Basements might be colder than the rest of your house during the winter but are still significantly warmer than being outside and give rats access to the whole house. It does not take long for rats to find food and get in your house.
Being nocturnal also means that you’re less likely to catch the rats until it is too late and they have gotten into your pantry and caused all kinds of damage.
Rats Might Also Be Using Your Attic For Storage
Attics are far enough out of the way that rats can easily remain unseen for the entirety of the winter season.
Most people will use attics for storage and forget about what’s up there, and rarely check them for pests.
Unfortunately, this makes them excellent places for rats to escape the cold by hiding in. However, they will probably make a lot of noise scurrying around which will help to notice them.
Attics offer a lot of warmth and shelter from the outside world, and insulation can be used as nesting material. This means that rat colonies can quickly build up in the attic left unchecked.
Attics, just like any area in your home, make attractive spots for rats to wait out the winter but can be dangerous to people due to the diseases rats carry, with a high likelihood of risking getting you and your family sick.
What To Do If You Find A Rat In Your Home During The Winter
Rats are likely to make their way into your home for the winter, and taking the right precautions to prevent this is important. However, if you find rats in your home it is also important to know what to do in response to an infestation.
Thoroughly Clean The Area And Secure Your Food
One of the first signs that rats are in your home might be noticing something going through your food and chewing through bags and boxes.
The other major sign of rats in your house will be rat droppings, which are much larger than mouse droppings and are ¼-½ inches in size and will be concentrated in a few areas.
When you find either of these things, you probably have a rat infestation and you’ll need to start to take steps to get rid of them.
Rats are attracted to food in your home and securing food off the ground and in rat-proof containers is the first step to getting rid of them. If rats can’t get to any of your food they are much more likely to find a different place to be where food is abundant.
Similarly cleaning up any areas affected by rats is important. Rats can carry all kinds of diseases and bacteria that can get you and your family sick.
Historically rats have caused many sicknesses, ranging from minor diseases to plagues and rabies all of which you do not want to have in your home. This is why it is so important to clean up any rat droppings and disinfect where they have been.
The CDC recommends using rubber gloves and a solution of 1:10 chlorine to water to clean up after rats and disinfect all surfaces.
Set Some Traps To Catch The Rats
Trapping rats is an effective solution for minor to moderate rat problems and is something you can do on your own without calling a professional. For larger infestations, we’ll talk about what to do below.
Kat Sense makes rat traps that quickly and humanely dispose of rats that are attracted to the baits. For bait, I have personally had good luck with peanut butter, but cheese, crackers, and hot dogs are all popular choices too.
Or if you would prefer to use a repellent instead of a trap you can check out Critter Out rodent repellent which uses strong peppermint oil and other essential oils to overpower a rat’s sense of smell and drive them away.
Rat chemical baits might seem like an easy option to take care of a rat population but most professionals recommend against it for one reason: the rats will go somewhere else after eating the bait and decompose in who knows what corners of your house.
You can also try to use more natural scents and repellents to get rid of rats. Take a look at the 15 scents that rats hate!
Call A Pest Control Expert
Sometimes pests can just get out of hand for an individual to deal with alone, and you’ll need to call in the big guns. Rats are one of those pests that can breed so rapidly and get into so many hard-to-reach areas in your home that calling a professional is the best option.
Professional exterminators will have access to a whole host of tools to locate and dispose of the rats and will make short work of them as well as help you control any future problems.
Exterminators will have access to fumigation technology which is one of the most effective ways to clear out pests from a home in a short amount of time, but will unfortunately temporarily leave your home out of commission while it is in progress.
If you’d like, you can get connected with a pest control pro near you who will help treat your infestation and give you the tools you need to prevent any future populations of rats from calling your home their own.
Thank You For Reading!
I hope that this article has helped you better understand the behavior of winter rats and how they might be a pest for you to deal with not just during the winter, but year-round.
Understanding what they look for in a winter shelter boils down to two important factors: food and warmth. Living near humans gives rats easy access to these two things and a lot of the places you are likely to find them during the winter are man-made structures.
Now, for a quick recap.
These are 8 of the most common places you’ll find rats during the winter:
- Tree hollows
All of these places provide shelter from the cold and precipitation, and a secure place for them to store their food and live in small colonies.
Auerbach, J. (2014). Does New York City really have as many rats as people?. Significance, 11(4), 22-27.
Humphrey, S. R., & Kunz, T. H. (1976). Ecology of a pleistocene relict, the western big-eared rat (plecotus townsendii), in the Southern Great Plains. Journal of Mammalogy, 57(3), 470–494. https://doi.org/10.2307/1379297
Lambert, M. S., Quy, R. J., Smith, R. H., & Cowan, D. P. (2008). The effect of habitat management on home-range size and survival of rural Norway rat populations. Journal of Applied Ecology, 45(6), 1753–1761. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01543.x
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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