(ARA) - A cozy home is the perfect escape when temperatures begin to dip. Unfortunately, rodents think so too.
According to pest control professionals, cooling temperatures and dwindling food sources send rodents scurrying into 21 million American homes each winter.
"Rodents normally feed on seeds and plant life, but when these are eliminated by freezing temperatures or drought, rodents are forced to invade human structures in search of food," says Stoy Hedges, entomologist and director of technical services for Terminix.
Mice and rats enter homes through small exterior openings. A 1/2-inch opening is large enough for a rodent, and mice can squeeze through voids as small as a 1/4 inch.
Rodents are also great climbers and can scale rough surfaces like trees or vertical pipes to gain entry to homes through vents and utility openings.
Living with rodents can be harmful. They are considered a fire hazard because of their habit of gnawing through electrical wiring, and they are a health threat because of the diseases they spread through their bites and excrement.
Rodents are known to carry more than 200 human pathogens. Some of these diseases, such as Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome and the plague, are potentially deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPS, which is spread through the airborne urine, saliva or fecal material of infected deer mice, has been identified in 30 states during the last 14 years. Of the 465 reported cases, nearly 35 percent have been fatal.
Although rare, approximately 12 cases of the plague are reported in the United States each year.
"Rodents and human health have long been connected," says Hedges. "Rodents were a vector for the plague in 14th century Europe, and the diseases they carry still pose a risk today."
Although few diseases carried by rodents are deadly, Hedges emphasizes that a rodent infestation should be taken seriously.
Contrary to what some believe, rodents are not a sign of unsanitary conditions. Experts agree that clutter and access to food can make a home more appealing, but rodents are opportunistic and will invade any structure that provides easy access.
If you suspect you have rodents, look for these signs. Rodents often leave evidence of their presence.
* Dark-colored droppings, 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch in length
* Gnawed boxes of food in cupboards
* Oily "rub marks" along walls caused by their habitual use of the same paths
* Gnawed door frames or furniture legs
* Sounds of movement in pantries, ceilings and behind walls
If homeowners believe they have an infestation, Hedges recommends they contact a trained professional.
The most common elimination methods used by pest control experts include a combination of traps and the use of rodenticides. Theses options, when implemented by a professional, can provide better results than by doing it yourself.
To help prevent rodent infestations, use the following tips to help prepare your home for the cooler temperatures ahead.
* Store firewood as far from the home as possible, and keep it off the ground.
* Remove any piles of debris, stones, bricks, etc. If these are near the foundation of the home, they provide shelter and can conceal rodent entry points.
* Seal any hole or crack in your home larger than 1/4 inch. Large openings should be stuffed with steel wool or wire mesh before sealing.
* Ensure attic and foundation vents are covered with tight-fitting 1/4-inch hardware cloth. Regular insect screening will not deter rodents.
* Install a tight-fitting weather strip on the bottom of all doors.
* Trim tree branches to prevent them from overhanging the home and cut shrubbery back away from the side of the structure. Courtesy of ARAcontent