Chicken keeping doesn’t have to be difficult, but rats can pose a big problem if left unchecked
You really don’t need the extra stress of vermin creeping around your coops in the middle of the night, eating all your feed, gnawing on everything and pooping everywhere making you ratty.
With a few smart decisions and a little up-front preparation, rats can be easily managed.
Rats & Chickens
It’s common for new chicken owners to get warned against potential chicken ownership. Because one of the most common problems faced is rat infestations.
But it’s not keeping chickens that attracts rats. It’s something much simpler.
Rats have to eat. Constantly. Rats can actually eat upwards of 10% of their own bodyweight, every single day.
This means, if you give the local vermin population an attractive, easy source of food, like a pile of accessible chicken feed, it’s basically an all you can eat buffet. Not only will you have rats all over your property, you’re going to increase their number as they breed, as they’ve got a free and near limitless food source.
Rats also have an amazing sense of smell, and can smell food from hundreds of meters away. If you have feed on your property, any rats in the area know about it.
Why are rats such a problem?
Apart from the fact that they’re eating your feed and drinking your water, rats bring with them a whole host of problems that you’re going to want to avoid.
First, rats don’t just eat chicken feed. They’re opportunistic predators who will happily steal eggs or kill and eat newborn chicks.
Second, rats unsettle chickens, and stress out your flock. This can lower egg production, and who wants unhappy chickens?
Third, rats are known for carrying parasites and disease, and will bring lice, fleas, mites and other problems to your enclosure, as well as contaminating feed, water and coops with their droppings and urine.
Lastly, no one likes rats, and if you have neighbours, you don’t want to get a reputation as the person who’s bringing all these rats into the area because they can’t maintain their property.
How to tell if you have rats near your chickens
Unless you have a serious rat infestation, you probably won’t see any of the rats themselves, as they’re shy creatures that only tend to come out at night. Instead, you’re more likely to see the signs that rats leave, like:
- Chewing damage to pens and fencing: Rats can chew through almost anything. Even untreated wood and thin plastic isn’t a barrier for a determined rat. If you start finding gnawed corners or holes, that’s a good sign that you might have rats.
- Holes in coop or chicken run flooring: On top of being able to chew their way through anything, rats are also really good at burrowing, and might find a way into a coop from underneath. Rat holes are normally a couple of inches wide, and will have the same irregular edges as a gnawed hole.
- You’re using extra feed: It can be hard to judge exactly how much feed is being eaten daily, and there’s no real average, because different breeds of chicken eat different amounts, and chickens eat a lot more in winter, compared to summer. But if you’re going through far more feed than usual, something else has to be eating it, and rats are a likely culprit.
- Missing eggs: Rats love eating eggs, and if your egg crop has dropped in the last few days, rats might be the cause.
- General signs: There are also the more common signs of rats, including droppings, which look like brown grains of rice, and rat footprints in less traveled areas.
Do rats attack chickens?
While it’s not usual for rats to attack fully grown chickens, it can happen.
Rats can grow up to 25cm long and weigh up to half a pound (225g). They can also be aggressive, territorial and tenacious creatures. But rats don’t generally go looking for fights. Instead, you’re far more likely to find a rat taking the easy option of stealing feed and eggs over attacking chickens.
However, when food is short, or given an opportunity, rats will definitely attack chicks, which are much less capable of defending themselves, as well as smaller or older birds, for the same reason.
When are you most likely to find rats?
Rats can and will come at any time of year, for any reason, but there’s one key thing that causes rat infestations:
Rats need to eat.
This means that rats are far more likely to consider attacking your hens or attempt ingress into a coop during fall and winter, where food is much less available, and they need to eat more because of the cold.
If you live in the country, it’s worth double-checking your coops around harvest time. Harvest is a bounty for rats and mice, but they tend to flee the fields after the heavy machinery rolls out and crops are taken in.
If you live in the city, the harvest is less of an issue. The seasonal changes are much less drastic, too, so rats don’t care so much about when they come.
Instead, rats tend to congregate around areas that have easy access to food, and safety. Pay close attention to areas where garbage cans are left up against fencing, and around the edges of sheds, piles of firewood, and other places that might make a nice, safe nest for rats.
How to protect your chickens against rats
Designing a rat proof enclosure is surprisingly difficult, because rats are incredibly athletic. Remember, rats can:
- Leap up to 3 feet (1 meter) vertically from standing, and jump up to 4 feet across between obstacles.
- Climb almost anything.
- Squeeze through surprisingly small holes, (around 25mm, the size of a large coin.)
- Dig through most materials.
So what do you do?
In this case, prevention is better than cure. The best way to keep rats out of your chicken coops is to stop them wanting to go into the coop in the first place.
Remember, a rat’s life is dominated by food. They are attracted to food and water sources first. Remove all the food, and a rat will have very little reason to want to go into a coop.
You should be working to minimize your food and water waste. Not only is this good practice, because it’s better for the environment, and actually saves you money (feed isn’t cheap!) You can do a lot with some easy fixes.
- Clean any spilled feed before nightfall. Even seed hulls and scraps can still attract rats, so keep everything as clean as possible.
- Store feed as far away from the coop as you can, and keep feed in airtight containers. Airtight containers make it much harder for pests to smell and access the feed. Plus, keeping it far away from the coop means that any potential pests or predators won’t come to associate your chickens with an easy meal.
- Don’t store feed in bags or cardboard. A rat can gnaw through both in minutes. If possible, also avoid plastic, as most plastic containers aren’t actually rat proof. Either store feed somewhere high and inaccessible, or if possible, in metal feed bins.
- Remove all feed and water sources at night. What this looks like depends on your coop. You could use hanging feeders, that can be easily taken off their hooks and stored elsewhere, or invest in treadle feeders that are designed to be resistant to rodents.
Keeping rats out of your coops is mostly just common sense and making sure that everything is well-built and secure.
Rats gnaw on everything, so all coops should be made from strong, weather-resistant timber that’s been given a coat of paint, to make it much harder for rats to get inside.
All doors should be securely locked at night. Never use flimsy twist-locks or hooks. Instead, invest in better quality locks, or if possible a set of automatic doors, which are almost impossible for predators to defeat.
Nesting boxes should be raised, as this helps protect the eggs inside. Also make sure all eggs are collected daily, as eggs are a tempting target for hungry rats, and they will look for a way in if they know there are eggs to be eaten.
Losing birds to predators is one of the most common concerns for keepers, and it’s worth pointing out that the measures we’re recommending don’t just protect against rats. They’re good, general safety measures to keep your birds happy, healthy and alive.
How can I prevent rats from digging under my fences?
Rats are excellent at digging (there’s a theme here) and fences intended to keep them out should be hardened.
It’s actually pretty easy to keep rats from digging under a fence. Buy some sturdy grid wire or hardware cloth, and dig a small trench under and in front of your fencing. Attach the wire to the bottom of the fence, and refill the trench with earth. Rats will rarely try and dig down further than 6 inches, and will quickly give up and look for some other way in.
Can rats eat through chicken wire?
Absolutely. Standard chicken wire is nowhere near strong enough to prevent rats from chewing through it.
It’s also worth pointing out that chicken wire won’t stop common predators like foxes and snakes.
Instead, use strong galvanised wire mesh, which should be firmly fixed in place to prevent animals from digging underneath or peeling it back at the edges. If you already have chicken wire in place, you can easily attach a second layer of stronger wire to the outside.
What are the best rodent proof chicken feeders?
Treadle feeders are the best fire-and-forget feeder type, and probably the best rodent resistant option on the market.
The design of a treadle feeder makes it basically rodent proof. When a hen steps on the foot plate, the feeder opens and dispenses food. When it’s not in use, the feed is stored in a heavy duty container, which generally holds around 20 to 40lbs of feed, so should last a long while before it needs to be refilled.
A trough style feeder looks exactly as it sounds, a small farmyard trough, made of wood, plastic, or metal.
Simple to pick up and move from place to place, troughs are a good option if you’re worried about rats. Look for metal construction, and don’t forget to cover them!
Also called hopper feeders, tankstand feeders hold a lot of feed, and only dispense more when the feeding area at the bottom starts to empty.
Free standing feeders like these are a good option because they’re easy to pick up, move, and store, but you might need to sweep away spilled feed at the end of the day.
Ones to avoid: External Coop Tube Feeders
Tube feeders hook onto the outside of a coop, making them very simple to set up and easy to use.
Unfortunately, the way that feeders like these work makes them the messiest, and unless you set up something to make it easy to remove them at night, they’re fixed in place, making them prime targets for vermin.
Hanging feeders are probably the simplest type in design, pretty much being a bowl that’s hung onto a fence or coop.
They suffer from the same issues as tube feeders. Feed tends to end up everywhere, and there’s nothing preventing rats from smelling the food or climbing into them and gorging themselves, while peeing all over your chicken feed!
In all likelihood, while you might get a few rats, you’re probably not going to have major problems, but good preparation for your little feathery friends is always the smartest play.
When you’re setting up living areas and runs, you should do everything you can to keep your chickens safe and protected. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a little extra investment now can save you a lot of cost, time and heartache later, if the worst should happen.