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When is a "packrat" really a packrat?

Anita, a friend of a great many years, showed up at my door one day with her son. They wanted to meet Eek, as, on the top of their fence, boldly relaxing in the warm sun day after day, was a huge rat. They wondered whether this was a woodrat and wanted to see Eek in order to compare the two. Another friend, a little wary of the Eek, told of a packrat that caused her car to catch fire. The rodent had made a nest in the engine compartment and chewed on the electrical wires. In another story from yet another source, a huge "woodrat" leaped into her house when she opened a door. She tried to herd it into a corner to trap it with several large open cardboard boxes, but it escaped, much to her surprise, by jumping high over the boxes and between her legs.

Once it is known that I have a pet Woodrat, many people have similar incredible rat stories they want to share - often rather scary or unnerving stories - along with asking questions about rats. The rodents in these stories - as usually indicated by holding up a distance between two hands - frequently have a body length of a foot or more. And puzzlement is expressed about wanting to keep something like that as a pet.

Are these really Woodrats? They don't sound like the Eek, in size, behavior, or even coloration. Are they maybe some other kind of rat?

A few of these questions were posed to Kris Brown, a.k.a. "Mr. Packrat", a friendly and humane packrat control expert in Arizona, where their native Desert Woodrat population is finding itself colliding with with burgeoning human population. He replied that just like fish tales, the rodents get bigger, bolder and do more damage with each telling of the story. His woodrats are a bit different than our native Woodrats, but he none-the-less had some valuable differentiation tips. Our nearby pest control folks, per their websites, are focused only on Norwegian and roof rats. And our friendly nearby rodent vet, Dr. Stern also had a few thoughts to share.

Compiling the answers received, here is a table to help you assess whether the rat you have encountered was an "old world" rat (meaning either an Nowegian/brown rat or roof/black rat) or a native Woodrat (in this case, the descriptions are specific to the Dusky-footed Woodrat)

"Old World" Rats Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus
Dusky-footed Woodrat Neotoma fuscipes
larger (20 inches, including tail; with a Norwegian rat, the tail is longer than the body)
smaller (10-18 inches, including tail)
tail appears naked
tail furred
makes nests of grass, stuffing, fabric
makes nests of grass, stuffing, fabric, also always including "fortification" materials like sticks
eats anything humans will eat, including meat
mainly vegetarian, prefers native plants
likes water; strong swimmer
detests getting wet
physically needs to chew regularly - likes soft plastics
physically needs to chew regularly - prefers sticks*
communal & commensal; usually found with and thriving around human populations
solitary & secretive; usually avoids humans and are not found in urban areas
active mornings and evenings
nocturnal; only out in the day if flushed from secure home
wary of humans and new objects
curious about new objects
larger scat (1/2-1" length) - on the right in the picture below
small scat (1/4") - on the left in the picture below

Rodent poop

A fine picture of fresh rodent poo. Scribble, the Norwegian rat, produced the "pellets" on the right. Eek, the Dusky-footed Woodrat, has her "product" featured on the left.

*based on demonstrated preferences of Eek and Scribble. Scribble prefers to chew on certain kinds of wire coatings (soft), yoga mats, and nut shells. Eek does not like to chew on those types of things, but chews on wood and some hard plastics. Scribble is the one that must be constantly monitored around electrical cords.

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Blog_post | by Dr. Radut