Myth or Fact: Rats Learn to Avoid Traps


You are stumped. It has been some time since you detected a rat infestation, and you have not caught a single rat. You may be thinking rats are so smart that they can avoid traps.

A behavior pattern when rats, like other omnivores, avoid traps and other unfamiliar objects is called food neophobia. It may take up 75 times longer for rats to avoid poison in a commercial bait station than on an open tray because they are afraid that a predator may inhabit the bait station.

What is Food Neophobia

Rats, just like other animals, rely on instinctive behaviors, which they learn from interacting with their environment.

This is true with humans, too: we learn to follow certain patterns of behavior when interacting with our surroundings, like learning how to walk on an uneven path.

The first thing to understand here is that rats are creatures of habit. One common mistake I will talk about later is that we do not get that immediately.

Rats follow predictable paths when moving from one place to another. Rats learn to return to places where they can easily find food. Like mice, they can leave their mark to find out the paths they can take.

However, one challenge to habitual behavior is fear of the new. This type of behavior is called “neophobia,” which in plain English means that rats fear the unfamiliar.

When they see something new in its environment, like an unfamiliar opening that leads to a poison bait station, they are wary and will avoid it.

I guess the reason you have landed on this page is that you were trying to catch a smart rat (link), but have been failing to do that for some reason.

I guess you have read reviews of various rat traps and bait stations, and it made you even more confused. One reviewer praises a particular and claims that he was able to catch the sneaky rodent in one day, and another gives a one-star review because “it didn’t work.”

The thing is that not all rats are the same, and food neophobia level varies among the rats.

Male vs. Female Rats

I guess it wouldn’t surprise you that there is a difference in behavior between male and female rats. Male rats are more aggressive, while females are more cautious.

According to this study, when female rats get into a new environment, they suppress their food consumption.

Male rats habituated to a novel food or food in novel places, e.g., traps, faster than females.

So, if the rate you are trying to catch is not necessarily smart. It may just be too shy to consume your poison yet.

Past Environment

Another interesting study founds that how rats react to new food and traps depends on the environment they grew up in.

If the rat used to live in a predictable, stable place where there were not many objects and food source was always in the same place, e.g., warehouse, then the level of food neophobia in that subject is higher.

On the other hand, the rats who bred in houses where owners were buried alive (like in the TV show) are less likely to be scared of new objects and less likely to avoid the traps.

We will talk about how to catch rats the right way by avoiding some common mistakes. Understanding that they fear the unfamiliar, like we do, is the first step to learning how to catch them properly.

Why Is Your Rat Trap Not Working

Now that we have established that rats fear the unfamiliar and will avoid anything novel or strange, we can figure out how to catch rats the right way.

There are nine common mistakes most people make, but the last two are the most important. I will get to them shortly.

The ideal strategy for catching rats the right way is to make them comfortable with their surroundings to the point that you can slowly introduce them to the unfamiliar.

But there are also other things to consider. Rats have particular behaviors that humans underestimate, and I will discuss those when we come to that point.

Answering the question “do rats learn to avoid traps” with a yes means you are ready to embark on a new adventure: learning to think like a rat and to adjust your strategy to match their ways of behaving.

Avoid these common mistakes with the right rat-catching strategies, and you’ll be fine. Good luck with your rat hunting!

A Wrong Food Bait Is Being Used

If you presume to think that the best way to catch rodents is to lay out a piece of hard cheese, it is most likely that you are off the mark.

Rats, like mice, prefer a certain kind of cheese that is soft and slightly smelly, but they are not fond of hard cheese because it is definitely not attractive. However, as I will show you, this is not exactly the best food bait for rats.

Knowing the right kind of food for rats makes leaving bait a breeze instead of a challenge. What do rats find irresistible? Here’s a list of kinds of food that you can use to bait rat traps:

  • Preserved meat, especially bacon and sausage.
  • Pet food, especially cat and dog food.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Chocolate.
  • Fruit, especially those that leave a sticky, sweet residue on the trap.
  • Candies such as gum drops and jelly beans.
  • Nuts and seeds, including bird seed mix.
  • Soft smelly cheese. We have to be specific here!

Of these, there is one commonly recommended food bait that pest control professionals and other experts prefer: peanut butter. It is made of nuts, which are already attractive to rats.

It is sticky, which means that rats will have a hard time removing the bait from a trap trigger. It naturally contains fat, something which rodents, in general, want to have.

There is also some merit to using preserved meat, in this case, meat that benefits from some form of cooking to help preserve it. Raw meat will rot easily and become unattractive to rats.

Bacon is a good example of a cooked, preserved meat that rats find good to eat. Remember, don’t lay out traps without enticing them first with food!

The Trap is Not of a Right Kind

How do you tell a rat and a mouse apart? Among other things, size matters. Rats are generally bigger and longer than mice.

They have other different physical features which I will not go into here.

It is enough to say that this alone tells me that if I am using the wrong kind of trap to catch rats, I are getting nowhere.

Simply put, do not use a mousetrap to catch a rat.

When you are looking for rodent traps, choose those specifically made for rats, including snap traps that match their body size, for instance.

Some traps are made for both mice and rats, such as sticky traps and live traps. Before we go any further, let’s tell those traps apart.

Snap traps are the ones we commonly connect with catching rodents. Mice touching bait on a snap trap trigger will activate the trap and have their necks broken.

A small amount of bait on the trap works, especially if it is sticky and attractive. There are snap traps specifically made for rats because it will suit their size and physique.

Sticky traps are precisely as their name suggests. When rats run into the adhesive, they will struggle to break free and slowly die in the process.

These traps are often considered the least humane of all rodent traps because a slow and painful death awaits mice and rats who wander unto them.

Live traps are a good alternative to either snap traps or sticky traps. They are especially effective in catching alpha male rats who normally could avoid traps and are “smarter than the average” rat.

As the name suggests, the rat wanders into a cage where the bait lies, and they are trapped alive.

By the way, do you know what to do with a rat caught in a live trap?

Take the live trap as far as you can (preferably a mile or more from your home) and release it into the wild, if possible. Be sure to handle the trap with gloves and disinfect the trap after use. There is evidence that rodents can find their way home if released less than a mile from your home.

When it comes to choosing traps for rats, to reiterate, size, and type matters.

However, here is another study from the Journal of Pest Management I want to share with you.

The study used various types of bait stations. Below, in the pic, traps A-D were commercially available bait stations, E-F were DIY boxes, G-J open trays, and K-L unset snap traps.

The researchers found that it took, on average, 107 minutes for a rat to pick the food from the closed bait station upon entering the room.

The same rats would snatch the food from the open trays in 1.42 minutes or 75 times sooner.

Rats are wired to avoid complex structures, such as bait stations. However, the study does not imply that rats will not get into the bait. It implies that it will take longer (about 75 times longer).

I have to note, however, that there are good reasons to use tamper-proof rat bait stations – they are safe for pets and kids. By the way, if you need recommendations on good pet safe rat stations, check here (link).

But, if you want to catch a smart rat sooner, then there is nothing better than a good ol’ snap trap.

Too Much Poison Used in Bait

I encounter this mistake when people set out a lot of chemical bait stations that disguise poisons in attractive, food-grade material to kill off rats.

The mistake is this: people use too much of it that rats are likely to nibble off the bait and run off with it—making it familiar.

The consequence? Rats will run off to their nests and hollows and eventually die.

I understand why chemical bait stations are quite popular. They do have a deterrent effect on rat populations by poisoning them.

If rats, however, are accustomed to the material, it will be hard to avoid one problem that will arise: a stench arising from unfamiliar places because of rotting rat corpses. This is why a different strategy is in order.

The solution? Mix up the rat-catching strategy. Instead of relying too much on chemical bait stations, place a smaller number in locations where you know they will not make an easy escape.

Use traps whenever possible in combination with bait stations. Remember to lay out the bait before installing any of them.

A reminder: chemical bait stations, while effective, are best placed in spots where they are out of reach of pets and children.

One very popular brand of chemical bait station uses a Vitamin K inhibitor for which there is no known antidote, so be very careful about where you leave a bait station.

Traps Placed in the Wrong Places

When you leave traps anywhere in the house without taking care of where you place them, you reduce the risk of them being effective.

The worst thing that can happen is that rats won’t be trapped at all if you leave them in the wrong place. Actually, it is easy to figure out what are the right places to set out traps.

Here’s the key: rats generally prefer spaces where they can hide. These include cluttered spaces, basements (especially at the top step of stairways), between or under furniture, ceiling voids, and wall voids.

The last two are a little more challenging to place traps in, but you could try! Here, the challenge is, where exactly should you lay them out?

In fact, the best place to lay out rat traps is along walls near those spaces.

Why is this?

Rats have a poor sense of sight, so they prefer to travel along particular paths along walls, using these as navigational aids to get around a room and travel from one spot to another. If you notice rat droppings along walls, you could set a trap there. 

Too Few Traps Have Been Set

The reason for this mistake is that human rat-hunters forget two things about rats.

First, if you see one rat, the chances are that there are more.

Second, rats multiply at an alarming rate. Forgetting these two things means that you might feel complacent and set out one or two rat traps. Even if you do this strategically, chances are this won’t work.

A word about rats multiplying at an alarming rate: did you know that female rats can give birth to their live young in 21 days?

Every time they give birth, they produce a litter of at least five. Imagine if this birth rate would be left unchecked: a rat infestation is more likely to happen sooner than later. That is something to give you pause.

If you want to avoid making this mistake, the answer is to lay out as many traps as you can, again in the right places.

One strategy to effectively capture plenty of rats at a time would be to set out bait in strategic locations, wait until rats get used to having to eat at those locations, and only then set out the traps and hope a lot would be trapped.

Remember that you do have to figure out the optimal number of traps. Sometimes, there may be too many rats for you to trap effectively.

This is the time I strongly recommend calling in a pest control expert. Again, too few traps mean that you can’t capture the rats. Too many traps will be hard to monitor. The key is finding the balance!

Traps Were Not Handled Properly

Rats have a keen sense of smell, and they know when predators or other unfamiliar threats are around by smelling.

This mistake happens when humans, in particular, handle traps with their bare hands and/or after handling other animals such as their pets.

What is wrong with this?

Well, rats will smell if anything strange is around, and…they will avoid the trap.

What is the answer to this problem?

To catch rats effectively, the key is to use gloves when handling mouse traps. When laying out traps, use gloves to place the bait and activate the trigger.

Make sure that traps are not handled by bare hands when removing them from their containers. If you’re laying out bait before putting out traps, use gloves as well.

If you do catch a rat in a trap and it is dead, using gloves is also crucial.

With these gloves and a paper towel, remove the rat from the trap (after disinfecting it), and dispose of both trap and rat corpse in a garbage bag, making sure to disinfect the interior after doing so.

Seal this bag and place it in another bag. Then throw this away immediately. 

Too Much Bait Placed in Traps

This mistake is easy to explain and makes some sense. You can have too much bait when you place more than is needed to trigger a trap, something a rat could easily remove and run away with.

If you feel like placing a whole dollop of peanut butter on a snap trap bait cup, think again. A rat may run away with a good bit without triggering the trap.

When it comes to placing bait in a trap or laying some out in a convenient place, a little goes a long way.

Rats like to nibble on small quantities of food and feed a lot in spots that become familiar to them. You want enough bait on a trap, for example, for a rat to try removing it to trigger the trap. So if you are after good results with food bait, a bit will do.

So what constitutes a lot?

If you are familiar with pet food, a portion the size of a single pellet of pet food may be sufficient for rats to eat at a time.

This might mean that roughly less than a fourth of a teaspoon of peanut butter is a sufficient quantity. Trial and error will be helpful, though, in figuring out how much is too much.

Rats Behavior Patterns Ignored When Trapping

I said earlier that every other mistake in this list comes from probably the last two, but this one is the most crucial.

People often don’t realize that rats have particular patterns of behavior that we should be aware of, and understanding these patterns will help us catch rats more easily.

Let’s use one example that I spoke of earlier in more detail.

As I said at the top, rats fear the new or unfamiliar. When an unfamiliar obstacle appears where there was none—like a trap or a bait station—they will be wary and at times avoid it.

Alpha male rats are especially good at doing this. Because they lead the group, they really know their way around. These are hard to trap.

The answer to this is not to lay out traps immediately without first preparing rats for them. Slowly get rats used to having food laid out for them.

Bait, that is.

When they are used to getting food bait in the right place, set out the traps with bait in them. This means waiting a few days between setting out food and trapping the rats. This leads us to the last big mistake…

Instant Results Were Expected

This is the mistake most of us happen to make.

It is an understandable mistake. Seeing a rat around the house can trigger emotions of fear and panic and the wish that the problem would be resolved immediately.

It is not easy to get rid of a rat. For that matter, it is hard to get rid of more than one. Because if you’ve seen one, there might be more.

Unlike our other mistakes for which I can find easy strategic answers, this particular mistake requires one thing: patience. And plenty of it.

It requires patience, for instance, to lay out traps and wait for rats to change their behavior to the point that they may wander into a trap. It also requires patience to monitor traps and how they’re working.

The key to making patience possible is to know that you are going on a great adventure without leaving your home. This adventure is going on a mouse hunt.

Like others before you, you will make mistakes and miscalculations along the way. However, the satisfaction of having a rat caught in a trap will make it all worthwhile.

If your patience has grown thin, however, do not give up. There are people willing to help you get rid of the rats in your home. They are pest control professionals who will help solve your rat problem.

Sources:

Greiner, E. M., & Petrovich, G. D. (2020). The effects of novelty on food consumption in male and female rats. Physiology & Behavior223.

Klaudia Modlinska, & RafaĹ‚ Stryjek. (2016). Food Neophobia in Wild Rats (Rattus norvegicus) Inhabiting a Changeable Environment-A Field Study. PLoS ONE11(6), e0156741.

Stryjek, R., & Modlinska, K. (2016). Neophobia in wild rats is elicited by using bait stations but not bait trays. International Journal of Pest Management, 62(2), 158–164.

Photo credit: ©canva.com/Photos.com

Wyatt Welch

Hi, I am Wyatt, and I live in North Carolina. I've been working as a Pest Control Technician and now I am enjoying my retirement. This blog is a perfect outlet for me to share my knowledge in the field and I'd be happy to help if you have any questions.

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