A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can rats swim up through the (urk) toilet?

March 16, 1984

Dear Cecil:

At 4:30 this morning I awoke to an unusual sloshing sound coming from the bathroom. Being the 'fraidy cat that I am, I forced my husband to investigate. Sure enough, we had a large (approximately 12 inches) rat practicing for the Summer Olympics in our toilet! Yucko! After dealing with the immediate situation (I will spare you the details), we started wondering: how did the rat get into the toilet in the first place? Did he climb up the pipe from the sewer? (Bear in mind that we live in a third-floor apartment).

As it turns out, we discovered that he had gotten in through a hole underneath our bathroom sink, which has a cupboard under it. Which raised another question: just how did he manage to scrabble into a porcelain toilet bowl? How clever are these little monsters, anyway? Can they in fact climb through pipes? The thought of having one swim up from below while you're sitting there reading Cosmopolitan is too horrible to contemplate.

Cecil replies:

This is going to gross you out of existence, K.B., but duty demands that the facts be revealed, come what may.

First the good news: although some people claim otherwise, Cecil's buddies in the rat annihilation biz say rats probably can't crawl up through toilet soil pipes, because the inside of the pipe is ordinarily wet and slick and because the diameter of said pipe — usually six inches — is too great to permit the rat to chimney its way up, if you follow me.

On the other hand, rats are very agile critters and it's quite possible for one to crawl up inside a three- or four-inch rainspout on a dry day. And rats can certainly crawl up the outside of a one- or two-inch pipe, or, for that matter, up a brick wall using the seams of mortar as pawholds. Rats can also do a tightrope number into your house via the telephone wire.

Getting back to toilets, you do have a problem if your john is at ground level or in the basement — that is, where the soil pipe runs horizontally or at a very shallow angle to the sewer. Rats are good underwater swimmers, and it's no problem — believe it or not, they actually have movies of this — for rats to stroll along a horizontal soil pipe from the sewer, swim through the water-filled piping inside the toilet, and emerge in the toilet bowl. If the soil pipe runs vertically for five or six feet or more, though, you're probably safe.

I underline the word "probably." I have a note here from a Teeming Millionth employed as a janitor who claims that every rat he has ever found in a toilet during his professional career was in a top-floor apartment. From this he deduces that the rats get up on the roof, enter the soil pipe through the roof vent, and lower themselves down the pipe and into the john. Screening off the roof vent supposedly cures the problem. Just thought I'd mention it.

Supposing your rat got into the house via more conventional means, such as a hole in the wall, getting into the toilet bowl is no problem; rats are great jumpers. Some can bound as high as three feet or so, which is why people are told to keep lids on their garbage cans. What probably happened in your case was that the rat was looking for a drink of water, fell into the toilet bowl, and couldn't get out.

Now for the remedial measures. Having determined that rats are in the building, we first caulk up the rat holes leading in from outdoors, using steel wool (a temporary measure), cement (where appropriate), tin, or a meshlike material called hardware cloth. This traps all the rats inside the house with you. At this point you have two options:

(1) Learn to live with them. Rats make cuddly pets so long as you do not mind the threat of rabies, typhus, or bubonic plague. I recall reading a story a while back of two women who kept hundreds of rats as pets in their home, feeding them 10 to 12 loaves of bread per day. The city was finally notified after the telephone company got tired of replacing wires that the rats had chewed through.

(2) Massacre the bastards. First, starve 'em. Rats basically eat what people eat (they don't like insects and such), so store all food in metal or glass containers or else in the refrigerator. This includes things like flour, sugar, spaghetti, and cereal. Next, wash all dishes and empty all garbage immediately after each meal.

Finally, get a snap trap or a glue board (works like flypaper), and bait it with peanut butter, preferably Skippy crunch style. Light a couple candles and put on some Mantovani (rats are suckers for cheap romance). Put the traps near any likely rat habitat, meaning any cool, dark, moist, concealed place, such as under a cupboard or in the wall (rat droppings are a giveaway). Then await the pitter-patter of little feet.

Follow-up: Rats are our friends

Dear Cecil:

Pleeeease — rodents are not, I repeat not, a source of rabies transmission. Check with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Perhaps you were thinking of those other warm furry critters, my friends the bats, which are the largest reservoir of rabies in the good old U.S. of A.

Cecil replies:

Christ, leave it to the Teeming Millions to speak up for the rats. Listen, George, according to my trusty Encyclopedia Americana, rats can carry or transmit typhus, spirochetal jaundice, tularemia, trichinosis, leishmaniasis, leptospirosis, bubonic plague — and rabies. The CDC confirm this.

As for bats — well, let me tell you, buddy, they don't take kindly to being libeled by disreputable rat lovers such as yourself. Bat biologist Edward Stashko of Oakton College, Des Plaines, Illinois, estimates that less than one-half of 1 percent of bats are rabid. He says many common misconceptions about bats, such as that they can carry rabies and infect humans without themselves being affected by the disease, grew out of faulty scientific research from the 30s, no doubt conducted at the behest of the rat lobby.

According to a 1982 report in National Wildlife, only ten people in the U.S. and Canada have contracted rabies from bats in more than 30 years. Exclaims Dr. Stashko: "More people have died from lawn mowers than from bats. Statistically you have a better chance of being hit by lightning than being bitten by a rabid bat."

Dr. Merlin D. Tuttle, curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum and founder of the noted philanthropic group, Bat Conservation International (I am not making this up), further elaborates: "You have a greater chance of dying from poisoning at a church picnic than from a bat. Are we going to outlaw those? Thousands of people die at the hands of their spouses every year, yet we're not about to wipe marriage out. Cats and dogs in the neighborhood are more likely to give you rabies. You have to put these dangers in perspective. Statistically, you have a better chance in this country of dying from being hit on the head with a coconut than from a bat biting you."

According to the CDC, by far the highest incidence of rabies among animals tested occurs not in bats but in skunks. So let's watch it with the smart remarks, eh, punk?

The Teeming Millions reply in a respectful and civilized manner.  Tomorrow: Sun rises in west, Pope discovered to be Jewish

Dear Cecil:

I was flattered to rank no worse than "punk" in your pantheon of ne'er-do-wells, but I have always been one to do my homework on matters such as bats, and I would not want people to get the impression from your answer that they have nothing to fear from bats.

To clarify a few matters (I would not be so presumptuous as to attempt to correct you again), I am no rat lover. Indeed, I am a card-carrying caver, and have a special fondness for all forms of cave life, particularly bats. However, I have also received pre-exposure rabies prophylaxis, and doctors Stashko and Tuttle no doubt have also — they would be fools not to.

Any bat bite is presumed to be rabid, for good reason. Have you ever tried to catch a bat after it bites you? What about recognizing him in a lineup of several hundred thousand bats — not uncommon numbers in Texas and New Mexico caves? Skunks are slow-witted surface dwellers and much easier to catch. Besides, they're not on the endangered species list yet and several American bats are.

With only 1-5 cases of rabies per year since 1960 in the U.S., 10 cases of bat-transmitted rabies is a pretty significant number, particularly since cavers are about the only people that regularly come up against the critters (not so with skunks!). Even if only one half of one percent of bats are rabid, it's been estimated that the Mexican free-tailed bat population of Texas alone was over 100 million in 1957. One half of one percent is still a lot of bats.

You should also know that no rodent rabies transmission has ever been reported in the U.S.

Cecil replies:

No need to be so reasonable about it.

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