Rats In Cars: Why Have Reports Increased?

“To a rat, a small hole is like a door.” And that’s the problem. Some gap or opening in your car becomes a door for food and shelter to a rat. And recently, possibly as a result of the pandemic, reports of rats in cars have been increasing. Why? What has happened to bolster rat populations to the extent they are invading more and more vehicles?

When the Check Engine light comes on, maybe it is from a rat

brown rat
Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus | Getty

More car owners find that the Check Engine light should read “Check For Rats.” That’s because like Libby Denalut, who lives in Brooklyn, when her Check Engine light came on, she took her Prius to the same mechanic she used for years. “They did a bunch of tests and couldn’t figure out what it was,” she told the New York Times. Eventually, they found a rat had chewed through a sensor wire. The time it took to find the problem resulted in a $700 bill.

Another Brooklyn resident noticed her car was having problems cresting hills. Once the Check Engine light came on, she took it to her mechanic. What he found was “chicken bones, some bread, and part of a bacon and cheese sandwich sitting there,” she told the Times. The bill came to $1,200. 

Michael H Parsons is a research scholar at Fordham University. He’s also an urban rat expert. He told the Times the reason rats are finding their way into cars is because of the pandemic. “When things started shutting down, the rats lost access to their usual food sources,” he said.

Rats want food and warmth-under the hood of cars

A view of the engine bay on a red Honda Insight.
A view of the engine bay on a red Honda Insight. | Getty

“Rats can adjust to human behavioral shifts very quickly,” said Jason Munshi-South, a biology professor at Fordham. “So when the pandemic altered our behavior, it impacted the rats as well.” Rats normally stay close to their food sources. But with restaurants closed for the pandemic, they had to venture farther out to find food and shelter

Some of this is attributed to the increase in outdoor dining areas and the soy-based wiring in new cars. Parsons says the insulation on the wiring is catnip for rodents. “Our habits determine how many rats are in our area,” he said. “All those aromas coming from garbage bags, the litter, and crumbs, those are enough to get the ball rolling.”

What can you do to repel rats?

Big rat
Big rat on Broadway | Getty

So how does one get rid of the pests? Parsons says, “It’s about social urban hygiene. We have to change the way we think about how we take care of our neighborhoods, and we’ll be able to get rid of the rats.”

Mothballs, peppermint oil, and fragrant soaps help to repel rats. There is also capsaicin-impregnated tape that can be wrapped around the wiring to turn off the rats. And because they’re also looking for warmth, propping up your hood, though inconvenient, quickly brings the engine bay down to an uninviting temperature. 

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