How Do Rats survive the Winter?

Rats enjoy the dubious accolade of being everyone’s most-hated pest. They’re dirty. They bite. They are carriers of diseases, bacteria and parasites. They infest human spaces, cause damage, contaminate food, set up home where they’re not wanted (everywhere) and businesses up and down the country are forced to spend money on robust pest control measures to keep their numbers under control.

And their numbers are indeed a big problem. Rats are incredibly successful breeders. Reaching sexual maturity after four-five weeks, a single female rat will typically give birth to six litters of between five and twelve rat pups a year. Though the life expectancy of the average rate is between just one and two years, such is their propensity to reproduce that new generations flourish – and continue to breed – before the old ones die off. In fact, a population of just two rats has the potential to swell to around 1,250 in one single twelve-month period and can grow exponentially from there.

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But the brown rat is a hardy species. They are survival machines and their winter habits remain largely consistent regardless of environment – though there is lull in their normal activities in winter and breeding tends to slow down. Nonetheless, like all warm-blooded mammals, in order to survive the harsh conditions, rats need warmth and a consistent supply of food.

Where do they get it from? Let’s explore how rats survive the winter.

Shelter – Man-made Buildings

Cold weather naturally requires rats to seek shelter from the elements and man-made buildings provide the perfect resource. When the weather gets really cold, rats are forced to flee their normal habitats straight into warm and dry buildings: houses, warehouses, barns, shops, office buildings – wherever they can. While many businesses may think that their pest control concerns are largely over for another year when the cold weather draws in, the reality is that rat problems can get worse.

There are millions of rats living in the UK. Some reports say that the number is around 10 million, although others estimate it’s more like 200 million. Whatever the exact figure, when winter closes in, hordes and hordes of these vermin come scurrying out of the sewers and into man-made buildings seeking shelter from the cold – meaning that pest control can be an even bigger concern for business owners in the winter, not a lesser one.

Food – Stockpiling

In the wild, food becomes scarcer in the winter months. As robust survival machines, rats know this and make preparations.

Although they don’t hibernate and aren’t able to fatten themselves up for the winter, rats can nonetheless prepare for food shortages in other ways. Beginning in autumn, much like squirrels, rats will start hunting for food with added purpose. Rather than eating everything they find immediately and opportunistically, they will begin making a stockpile for later consumption.

Rats will eat pretty much anything. In the wild, they often feed on fruits, grains, seeds and other vegetation. But they are not picky. When these items are off the menu, they’ll turn to insects, smaller animals and even their own faecal matter if times are tough. But of course, the main reason why rats are such a big pest control problem for humans is that many will make an almost exclusive living off human waste and rubbish. As winter approaches, rat activity around refuse areas can increase as the rodents begin scrounging for food waste to hide away for later consumption.


Once rats have chosen a building in which to shelter from the cold and have stockpiled food, they will next turn their attention to building a nest. Rat nests are much less organised than bird nests. Rather than carefully weaving together twigs, leaves and feathers like birds do, rats instead, simply make a rough pile of shredded materials – plant materials, but also things like cardboard, loft insulation and any other soft rubbish they can find – and bunch it all together.

The fact is, for rats, it’s the location of the nest – rather than the materials it’s made from – that matters most. They prefer warm, dark places that are free from predators – and again, as man-made buildings can provide such spaces, rat infestations can become a particular pest control problem in winter.

Signs of Rat Infestation

As we approach the coldest time of year, it’s important for all business owners to be on the lookout for signs of rat infestation, as the rodents will now be looking to set up shelter from the cold. Look out for the following:

  • Evidence of nesting: Any shredded materials, including paper, cardboard, plants and rubbish.
  • Damage to property, food stores and bins: Rats need to chew on hard materials to keep their incisor teeth in check, so keep an eye out for gnawing marks on walls, wood, surfaces and metals. Bin bags may be torn open as the rodents hunt for food and nesting materials and any food stores will be a particular target for obvious reasons.
  • Droppings: Rat droppings are like little grains of dark brown rice and are pretty easy to spot, so be sure to check for them.
  • Scratching noises: Rats can set up residence in walls, under floorboards and in lofts and attics. They are agile climbers and you will be able to hear them scratching around, particularly at night.
  • Rub marks and footprints: In less-used areas where there is a build-up of dust, you will be able to see footprints and tail marks where rats have been. Also check along skirting boards for grease marks, as the filth and dirt on rats’ bodies will leave smudges along the surface.

Safeguard Pest Control

Rats can survive the winter very well, but they often need to exploit human resources to do so. As such, rat infestations can be a big pest control problem for business owners during the cold winter months.

With over 30 years’ experience designing and executing bespoke pest control strategies, Safeguard Pest Control has the knowledge and expertise to tackle rat infestations at all types of property at any time of year. Get in touch today to organise a free site survey

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