Coronavirus lockdowns are forcing rats to resort to cannibalism and infanticide due to lack of food sources

Coronavirus lockdowns are forcing rats to resort to cannibalism and infanticide due to lack of food sources
(Getty Images)

It may seem strange but lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are leading to a rodent problem. The closure of many businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores is impacting rats, and what is scary is that these rats are waging their own battle to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic and some are turning into cannibals.

“They're mammals just like you and I, and so when you’re really, really hungry, you’re not going to act the same — you’re going to act very bad, usually. So these rats are fighting with one another, now the adults are killing the young in the nest and cannibalizing the pups,” Dr Bobby Corrigan, an urban rodentologist, told NBC News. 

Dr Corrigan also tweeted, “COVID19: Rats Jumping Ship: The USS RatGravy Train. W/O the once-daily/dependable, nutritious, & quick-hit garbage (i.e., Rat's Trifecta), some panicked rat populations carrying their own ‘issues’ are in-fighting/killing, dispersing openly, & invading bldgs under door gaps.” 

Rats usually feed off garbage from restaurants. According to the expert, once colonies of rats lose their established food source — such as trash cans outside restaurants or popular public places with lots of litter and garbage — they will start fighting over any food that is left. And when hungry rats move to areas where food is still available, it is a war. Some rats will kill and eat their own in a desperate bid to survive.

“It's just like we've seen in the history of mankind, where people try to take over lands and they come in with militaries and armies and fight to the death, literally, for who’s going to conquer that land. And that's what happens with rats. A new ‘army’ of rats come in, and whichever army has the strongest rats is going to conquer that area,” said Corrigan.

He added, “A restaurant all of a sudden closes now, which has happened by the thousands in not just New York City but coast to coast and around the world, and those rats that were living by that restaurant, someplace nearby, and perhaps for decades having generations of rats that depended on that restaurant food, well, life is no longer working for them, and they only have a couple of choices.” These choices include “cannibalism, rat battles, and infanticide.”

Once colonies of rats lose their established food source, such as trash cans outside restaurants, they will start fighting over any food that is left (Getty Images)

According to one expert, as rats turn to cannibalism to survive, it may lead to a more aggressive rat breed in the future. “Rats breed quickly, with a 23-day pregnancy period. Those smarter, more aggressive rats could produce a more resilient group of rats searching for food in any way they can,” Michael H Parsons, a biological sciences research scholar at Fordham University, told Insider. 


Increased rat sightings are already being reported. The French Quarter in New Orleans, for example, recently had rats wandering its streets. Claudia Riegel, Director, City of New Orleans Mosquito Termite and Rodent Control Board, told the media, “With the businesses being shut down, these rats are hungry.” She warned that people should not leave their pet food outside and that they should handle their trash properly. 


New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell also said that lockdowns “are driving our rodents crazy.” Cantrell said she is concerned about these rodents entering homeless camps. “And what rodents do (is that) they will find food and water. That puts our streets’ homeless in a dire state,” she said.

Cantrell also posted, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you to everyone in the exterminator community in New Orleans! Your service is essential 365 days of the year and we appreciate you. Claudia Riegel, our Director of the City’s Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board is using this time while residents are staying home to hit commercial areas hard with pest control. You see her and team here baiting Bourbon Street yet this will happen all over NOLA. This is one example of why it’s essential to clean up our neighborhoods.”

In Washington DC, a new program is enlisting cats to help with the growing rat problem. The city has received close to 500 calls in the last 30 days regarding rodents, according to data till April 14.


In Washington DC, a new program is enlisting cats to help with the growing rat problem (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, with the streets deserted, and as these urban rat colonies disperse and start looking for food, they could also come knocking at your door, warn experts. They can cause damage inside houses, and can also spread disease. 

Dr Corrigan told BBC that rats are “formidable mammals” and hungry rats can travel quite a distance and end up in a different neighborhood completely that had no rats prior. “They are very good at sniffing out sources of food, and their powerful teeth can make short work of barriers like doors, plastics, or fabrics. They're global, they’re everywhere, and they didn't get to be completely global if they weren't very skilled at being masters of adaptation,” he said. 

However, Dr Corrigan says that people should not panic. “There's no one behavior that's going to fit all. This is not going to be a case where all of a sudden the rats are doing invasions everywhere, and it's not going to be exactly as we saw on Bourbon Street in New Orleans,” he told NBC News. 

Rats are officially associated with about 55 different pathogens, says the BBC. But there have been no reports of rats carrying the COVID-19 virus.


During the briefing, Riegel also said that there are pathogens in these rodents, but fortunately one does not see many of the health outcomes, and there are not many disease cases that are related to rodents. But the potential is there, she added.

Accordingly, say experts, it is a good idea to use a pest control specialist. “If you don't check them with those (pest control) tools, they can be the ones that end up inside somebody's home or bedroom or with children or inside a nursing home or hospital," Dr Corrigan told BBC.

Jim Fredericks, the chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association, told National Geographic that while people think of pest control as a luxury or pests being just a nuisance, many are a threat to public health, as well as the food supply. “If rodents are hungry enough to move into new places to search for food, they are also likely hungry enough to take bait from traps,” he said. 


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