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Building a better mousetrap: On the ethics of using rat poison (rodenticides)

Posted Feb 26 2010 10:00pm

How many pets succumb to rat poison toxicity every year? I’m sure the ASPCA Poison Control knows but I don’t have the figures on hand this morning. I have, however, seen at least two pets die following confirmed ingestion of rat poison.

In one case, a dog’s sudden internal bleeding led to a frantic search of a vacation home where a basement stash of rat poison had indeed been thoroughly messed with. But it was too late to effectively administer the antidote. She died on her way to the University of Pennsylvania’s vet school ER with a transfusion line snaking into her leg and her chest rapidly filling with blood.

The second case was less typical: Everyone knows Mr. Animal Hater next door likes to line his yard with peanut butter-laced at poison to “discourage” would-be poopers from using his lawn as a toilet bowl. So when Fluffy accidentally got out two weeks ago I guess she headed straight to where she knows the nice man with the peanut butter lives. She’s not stupid.

At least she died quickly. Bleeding from her nose was the first sign.

Over the years, the rest of my patients (dozens of them) have fared far better. That’s because either 1) their owners became aware of the exposure very early on (if not immediately upon ingestion) or 2) intensive care interventions were aggressively initiated before life-threatening blood loss occurred.

So you know, there are a wide variety of products we humans use to kill rats. The art of rat control is at least as old as the practice of food storage. Though most of the available rodenticide products affect the blood clotting mechanism––leading to death through blood loss––not all work the same way. Some provide an overdose of Vitamin D (which usually leads to kidney failure) while others address the rat’s nervous system, killing them with seizures and such.

None of these toxic methods is kind. Nor do the vagaries of the mousetrap’s maw make for an excellent approach to killing things. Over the last few decades, building a better way to deal with rat infestation has meant...

#1 appealing to the modern person’s sensibility by eliminating the icky traps with their in-your-face brutality (there’s something about recognizing rat brains before they go in the trash that gives most people the willies)––hence, all these “modern” poisons

#2 making the poisons work faster so that one dose is more than enough

Unfortunately, the collateral damage to pets and wildlife offered by the toxic approach has meant lots and lots of non-rodent deaths over the years. Consequently, more recent methods have attempted to tailor the stuff to the rats’ unique tastes, thereby making the stuff less appealing to other mammals. But it’s not always been so terribly successful an approach (if you’ve ever met a chocolate Lab, you’ll know that anything is fair game to some animals).

The issue of non-target deaths has always been uppermost in the minds of those of us who decry the use of rodenticides. Poisoning dogs and cats and other large mammals has always been problematic. Rats themselves? Not so much. For some reason, the ethics of hurting animals incidentally has always overshadowed the very deliberate act of killing a sentient being when it comes to rats.

Over the years, the argument I’ve always heard is that death by blood loss is not a painful ordeal. Which may be true depending on how that blood loss comes to pass. A suddenly bleeding abdominal mass? That’s generally considered non-painful. A clotting problem that leads to the same? If the bleeding happens suddenly, that’s pretty much true, too.

Problem is, not all animals with coagulation problems like this experience sudden death due to rapid blood loss. Most will suffer slow bleeds, sometimes painfully into their muscle tissue (if what humans describe is any measure) before experiencing the larger volume hemorrhages that hasten death. And the other toxins aren’t much better, comfort-wise.

So here’s where some welfare-minded folks like to ask: Why is it that we treat rats with such disdain when we’d never allow any other mammal to suffer in that same way? Think it’s a little crazy to stress over the death of a “pest”? You might not after reading this interesting peer-reviewed article titled, “The ethics of rodent control.”

“Because western societies generally see animals as objects of moral concern, demands have been made on the way they are treated, e.g. during animal experimentation. In the case of rodent pests, however, inhumane control methods are often applied. This inconsistency in the human-animal relationship requires clarification. This paper analyses the criteria that must be met when judging the use of animals during experiments, and investigates whether these can be applied in rodent control. This is important, because, until now, animal welfare has been less of an issue in pest control: effectiveness, hygiene and cost efficiency have been leading principles. Two options are available to solve the inconsistency: the first is to abandon the criteria used in animal experimentation; the second is to apply these criteria to both animal experimentation and rodent control. This latter option implies that rodent control methods should not lead to intense pain or discomfort, and any discomfort should have a short duration and should allow escaped rodents to lead a natural life. Adherence to this option will, however, require a shift in the design of rodent control methods: effectiveness will no longer be the leading principle. It will have to share its position with animal welfare and humaneness.”

Great stuff, right? It’s all about the human-animal connection. And keeping things balanced and consistent. Which is why instead of toxins, here’s what I’ll always propose when it comes to rodent control: a smart ratter. Get a cat for your interiors and a dog out of doors. You’ll never see another rat. It’s the most humane method you’ll ever encounter. At the very least, it’s less morally reprehensible than the alternatives––that is, unless you’re willing to live with ‘em.

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