Archive for February, 2009
The Return Of The Rat – Our Most Reviled Pest Thrives
The Return Of The Rat – Our Most Reviled Pest Thrives – The rat population of Britain is currently at an all time high, fortnightly waste collections, lack of sewer baiting and the late night takeaway are all cited as culprits in this rodent explosion, but what do we really know about the humble creatures that thrive in our sewers and induce almost universal fear and loathing in all who encounter them.
Rats are not native to Europe or North America but originate in Asia and almost certainly arrived in Europe as stowaways on trading ships, indeed the common name for Rattus rattus is the ship or black rat.
In Asian folklore the rat is a prominent character, in Hindu mythology the elephant-headed god Ganesh is accompanied by a rat wherever he travels. An offering to Ganesh and his companion Vahana the rat is therefore an important part of Hindu worship.
To the Romans the sighting of a white rat was considered to be lucky but if you found that rats had chewed your belongings then you should postpone any business affairs that you were planning that day or they would surely fail.
Reviled in the west, the rat is revered in Chinese mythology, being part of the Chinese zodiac and respected for its quick wit and resourcefulness. The rat is considered good luck in China & Japan where it is credited with bringing the gift of rice to the world.
To the Polynesians rats were an easily bred and transportable source of food
In 1347 the Mongols laying siege to the Crimean city of Caffa began to succumb to a mysterious illness that killed swiftly and mercilessly. In order to weaken the city the Mongols catapulted the bodies of their own dead over the city walls and within days the inhabitants of Caffa also fell prey to the disease.
However, a group of Italian merchants were allowed to leave the city and return to Italy, and probably unknowingly took with them the Black Death, Yersinia pestis.
The ensuing plague raged throughout the continent reaching Britain in 1348 with up to 90% mortality in some areas and it reappeared in Europe in every generation for over four hundred years.
We now know of course that the rat was a carrier, or to be more precise the fleas that the rats carried on their bodies were the agents of plague transmission.
Indeed whilst being in no way established in fact, it is possible that the children’s story of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn is an allegory of the plague, it certainly indicates that the rat population was booming at the time.
Every cloud however has a silver lining and the survivors of the 14th century plagues found that they could now demand higher wages and better conditions as the shortage of workers in the wake of plague deaths created a seller’s market for labour. The rise of the Yeoman Farmer and the British class system could be argued to be attributed to the humble rat.
Into modern times and the Black Rat is now almost extinct in the British Isles, having been replaced from the 18th century onwards by the Brown or Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus) and it is this creature that now thrives in our sewers, on our streets and in our homes and it is when we encounter it there that it creates most revulsion.
A typical rat weighs around 200 – 300 grams or half to three quarters of a pound, and has a tail around the same length as its body, often making it appear bigger than it really is.
One of the primary functions of a rat’s tail is thermo-regulation; it uses its tail to dissipate body heat. When a rat’s temperature falls it restricts blood flow into its tail.
Rats are rodents, the word comes from the Latin ‘Rodere’ meaning ‘to gnaw or eat away’, aptly named as their teeth never stop growing and they gnaw on hard objects to keep them sharp, unfortunately this can often include electrical wiring and water pipes. A rat’s teeth can penetrate mild steel.
Often a rat will move into a loft or roof void looking for somewhere safe to give birth, being excellent climbers the interior of the cavity wall of the building is a common route, especially if there is an underground breach in the drainage system.
They are sexually mature at around 13 weeks and have a gestation period of about 20 –22 days giving birth typically to 7 – 10 young per litter.
They are naturally shy and nocturnal creatures said to suffer from ‘neophobia’ a fear of anything new in their environment.
Often the first signs that a house is infested will be the patter of tiny feet on the upstairs plasterboard ceilings, although with the modern trend for roof insulation an infestation can often go undetected for quite some time. In homes with floorboards gnawing will often be heard in the sub-floor area.
Their need to eat will often betray their presence, food stored in cupboards will be taken, cereal packets chewed, chocolate and crisps are favourites, although a rat often has a diet that we would find somewhat strange.
The rat has no ability to taste ‘bitter’ foods so it can quite happily munch away on a bar of soap for the fat content. Pest controllers use this as a safety feature and all rat poison is coated in a bitter substance that the rats can’t taste but which would make it totally unpalatable to a dog or a child.
Although the rat is no longer a plague carrier it does come with a number of unwelcome traits. It is a carrier of a number of diseases including Murine Typhus, Salmonella and Weil’s Disease, spread from rats’ urine, which unfortunately usually claims at least one life in Britain each year.
If you have a rat infestation then you have a legal duty to remedy it and in extreme circumstances forced entry to your property can be made against your will.
As a final sting in the tail, many household insurance policies specifically exclude damage by vermin so if a rat chews your wiring and the house burns down you may find yourself without insurance cover.
Hated, despised and unloved the humble rat continues to share and shape our environment in ways that we do not see or appreciate and despite our best effort the rat and man will always co-exist.
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The Joint Is Jumpin’ – The Story Of The Flea (Ken Chadwick)
The Joint Is Jumpin’ – The Story Of The Flea -Contrary to popular opinion cat & dog fleas do not live on their chosen animal, they merely jump onto their host at feeding time, and dinner for a flea of course is blood.
In nature the fleas live and breed in the nest of animal they feed on, in reality of course in a modern house the ‘nest’ becomes the carpets, rugs and soft furnishings.
Flea (Ctenocephalides felis & canis) infestations are becoming much more prevalent in recent years, centrally heated homes provide an ideal environment for the life cycle of the insect, which can be completed in as little as 16 days.
The increased presence of urban foxes in many towns and cities may be responsible for the increased number of flea infestations as foxes always carry a generous population to share with the neighbourhood cats and dogs.
The well fed flea lays its eggs in the nesting material, carpets in a modern dwelling, which hatch out into larvae which crawl away from light and hence are to be found deep in the pile. In the egg and larval stage they are also pretty resistant to insecticide which is why it is rarely possible to cure a flea infestation with one treatment.
The larvae eat the blood rich droppings of the adult flea before pupating to emerge as a young, hungry flea
Human beings do not taste especially nice to fleas and our blood is not of sufficient quality for them to breed, but in the absence of a cat or a dog we will do!
In the absence of a host the immature flea can go into a dormant state without feeding for up to a year or more and then revive within seconds on feeling the vibration from the footfall of a potential meal. For this reason properties which have been empty for a while often provide a little surprise for the new owners.
Often the family holiday is the time when people notice they have a flea problem, having put the family pet in kennels for a couple of weeks the resident flea population is starving and eager to greet them on their return.
There is however a dangerous side to fleas, we all know they were responsible for transmission of plague and thankfully we don’t have that to contend with anymore but they can set off serious skin irritations in susceptible people including dermatitis.
They also have a more sinister side. The flea is an intermediate host for tapeworm.
When the flea dines on an animal infected with tapeworm it can ingest the worm eggs which pass into its guts. These infected fleas can then be ingested by a cat or dog during self-grooming and the worms infect the new host.
Worse still it is easy for a human baby or toddler to accidentally ingest these fleas when crawling on flea infested carpets.
In order to clear a flea infestation it will be necessary to treat both the animal and the carpets and soft furnishings of the property and outdoor areas where the animal may frequently visit. A professional pest controller will often use both an insecticide and a growth retardant hormone to interfere with the flea life-cycle. The cat or dog will need to be treated at the same time by a veterinary surgeon.
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- Half of pet dogs and cats are overweight (telegraph.co.uk)