Many people who live on or near a lake, creek, river, or body of water are very used to seeing our little ‘river rats’. Muskrats played an important role in the settlement of this country, providing food and fur for the people who came here. Nowadays, they live in our bodies of water, really tick off our dogs, and frustrate a lot of boat dock owners. Muskrats are the only semi-aquatic rodent, almost a miniature beaver. They are more closely related to a mole than a beaver in reality, but they share a lot physical features with the latter. Many times muskrats share a beaver’s den during the winter months, and they coexist quite amicably. An adult muskrat is about 16 to 24 inches long, almost half of that is the tail, and they weigh from 1.5 to 4 lb. That is about four times the weight of a regular rat, though an adult muskrat is only slightly longer. Think of them as a fuzzy brown, usually wet, soccer ball sized animal with a very long opossum-type tail. Muskrats are considered to be omnivorous and eat the roots, stems, leaves, and fruits of a many water plants, such as cattail, wild rice, water lilies, and rushes. Even though the muskrat is mainly a plant eater, it also eats small fish, clams, snails, and even turtles. In general, muskrats keep to themselves and don’t want much to do with humans. They aren’t raiding our trash cans, or tearing up our yards, but there are times that they become a bit of a nuisance to some people. Muskrats multiply like rabbits, and one muskrat is not usually the issue. Two muskrats become 20 muskrats in an amazingly short length of time, and before you know it you might be overrun with them. Here are a few of the calls we’ve gotten concerning our river rat friends.
This issue could be related to a muskrat, but it might also be a river otter, mink or beaver. It depends on the amount of damage. When muskrats chew into a boat dock, they are usually trying to create a den in between the metal structure of the dock and the wooden walkway. They like to live under your feet on the docks, and have their babies there. Once they have created the den site, it’s up to you if you want to let them have it, or evict them. The first step in eviction is to get under the dock to see if there are babies present. Muskrat babies are born pink and furless, blind, and helpless. The easiest way to get a look at the nest is usually to get in the water, swimming, and use a flashlight to look in between the walkway of the dock and the water. If Mom isn’t home, it is okay to touch the nest and feel for babies. If babies are present, try to leave them alone for two weeks. Muskrats grow up very quickly, like rabbits, and it’s no time at all before the kids are grown and moved out. Once they are moved out, you can remove all of the nesting material, and cover up the gap between your wooden deck and the metal structure under it. We like using metal mesh, or even window screen material. Just use a staple gun to attach it and close off the area. It doesn’t take much of a gap for a muskrat to get back under there, so make sure there are no holes or gaps where they can get back in. For a week or so after covering the gap, walk down to the dock at least 2-3x per day and stomp around, make noise, remind the muskrats that you live here, and they are not welcome. Play a radio, turn on the dock lights, stick your feet in the water – anything to let the muskrats know that people live here and it is not a safe area to have babies.
My dog caught a muskrat!
This happens more often than any of us would like, including the dogs. Dogs, especially water-loving breeds like Labrador’s, Newfoundland’s, golden retrievers, tend to come across muskrat dens fairly often and when they all start to run away, the dog pounces and usually gets one. Muskrats are not very friendly at all, and will bite back at your dog. By the end of the argument, both the dog and the muskrat will end up bleeding and getting hurt. If the muskrat runs away after the fight, it’s okay – let him go. Nature will sort it out. If the muskrat doesn’t run and is lying on the ground, still alive, keep your dog away, and call the hotline for further instruction @ 1-855-WILD-HELP. Clean the dog’s wounds VERY well with peroxide immediately after the fight. Muskrats can carry the rabies virus, although rarely, and carry tularemia, as well as a kidney related disease called leptospirosis. Consult your veterinarian to make sure that your dog is up to date on their rabies vaccination, and ask your vet about vaccinating your dog against Lepto as well. If your dog is in contact with wildlife on a regular basis, it is a good idea to get vaccinated again Lepto just in case. If the dog has any wounds that don’t stop bleeding, or seem deep, take him to the local emergency hospital, or call your vet’s office to get him the care he needs. Muskrats carry plenty of bacteria in their mouths, so the bite wounds can easily get infected if not cared for properly.
I found a nest of baby muskrats.
Muskrat Mom’s are a lot like rabbit moms. They don’t stay with the kids all day or all night. They basically show up a couple of times per day, lay on top of the kids and nurse, and then they leave. They do this every day for about three weeks, and the young are completely on their own by one month of age. This means that sometimes, baby muskrats are found wandering around, not sure where Mom went. Our rule of thumb is that if a muskrat is baseball size or bigger, leave it alone. It is old enough to be on its own and needs no intervention. If smaller, contact the wildlife hotline for assistance to find a rehabber that may be able to assist. If you must pick up the animal, do so with a towel or dishcloth, gloves if you have them, and place them in a shoe box with a towel and keep them warm and dry until we can reach someone who can take them in.
… A Word about Poison …
We at the Wildlife Hotline are strong opponents to poisoning wildlife. First off, it is not a legal way to handle wildlife conflicts. Secondly, poison never ends up only affecting the animal that you intended to poison. These animals are part of the circle of life, and if poisoned a predator comes along and eats the dead animal which then kills the predator, which gets picked apart by birds, which then kills the birds, then the birds are found by a domestic cat and kills the cat. It just isn’t simple issue. Poison has proven to be a far too dangerous way to handle wildlife conflicts. Before you decide to use poison to handle your wildlife conflict please read our ‘Poison Risks & Consequences’ page to learn more about this issue.