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Mouse-proof your house. December 29, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share here in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, is surrounded by farm fields. Farm fields mean field mice. A plentiful deer population means white-footed deer mice. And when it gets cold outside and the food supply starts to dwindle, their thoughts turn to a warm, cozy cottage home.

Mice—especially white-footed mice—may look cute, but there are two very good reasons to keep them out of your house. One is the horrible mess they make if they do get into something—shredded cloth, ripped-up packages, spilled food, massive amounts of droppings and the stench of mouse urine. The other is disease. White-footed deer mice are the actual carriers of the ticks that spread debilitating Lyme disease. In the Southwest, mice carry the often-fatal hantavirus. It’s easy to blame rats for the resurgence of plague in the U.S., but who’s to know? Maybe plague-carrying fleas have made the short jump to mice.

Needless to say, when you grow up in rural, mouse-friendly houses, as OFB and I both did, you learn some standard anti-mouse procedures early on. And here at Hawk’s Haven, we’ve developed others.

Yes, of course you can smear something sticky, like peanut butter or Brie, on mousetraps and set them where mice can get them but you and your pets and kids are unlikely to get snapped. If you use mousetraps, I suggest you dump the poor little carcasses in the shrubbery so your overwintering wildlife can get some extra protein. For my part, people who use glue traps can rot in them themselves in a hell of agony, terror, and slow death.

If you don’t have kids or pets, you can set out poison bait, as my father always did. Unfortunately, this process involves a step they never advertise on the packaging: The mice don’t die right away. Instead, they inevitably crawl into the woodwork or somewhere else where you’ll never find them, then die and proceed to rot and stink for months on end. It’s just amazing how strong a tiny little mouse carcass can smell. Eeewwww!!! And don’t ever let anything, pet or wildlife, eat a poisoned carcass, unless you want to inflict more death.

You can of course also try your hand with live traps, and good luck to you. Please check them often, or the mice will suffocate in terror. And please have a humane release plan that doesn’t involve dumping them on someone else’s land. Good luck with that!

I guess it’s obvious that we don’t use poison or traps here at Hawk’s Haven. We prefer a simple program of deterrence. Our first line of defence is our two indoor cats and beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh. It’s true that every now and again, one of the cats will catch a mouse. But far more often, their pursuit of the mice, launching themselves against the heating ducts or whatnot with Shiloh in hot and happy pursuit, is enough to make the mice rethink their strategy. Retreat suddenly looks like a great idea.

We’d recommend cats to anyone. But our longterm strategy is much simpler and more passive: exclusion. First, we try to make sure there are no openings, however small, into our home, such as a tiny space around a pipe. We’ve heard that mice can squeeze through an opening the size of a dime. Though this is hard to believe of our fat country mice, we take no chances, filling space where pipes and the like enter the house with steel wool, then duct-taping over it.

Next, we store mouse-friendly foods in mouse-proof containers. Cheeses, butter, produce and nuts live in our fridge until it’s time to eat them. Grains, pasta, beans, and cereals are in large glass or hard plastic click-top containers. Everything else that’s out is in cans, bottles, or glass jars. We keep our pet food in huge tins, and keep our black-oil sunflower seed and suet cakes for the outdoor birds in a tin as well. (Note: If, like us, you thought mice were vegetarians, you’ll be shocked to learn that they appear to love meat-rich cat-food pellets as much as any cat.)

We’re also mindful of things that wouldn’t strike us as edible, like soap and candles. Mice love ’em, so we keep them in secure, mouse-proof storage. Ditto for all natural fabrics. Mice are especially fond of wool—knitters, guard your yarn!—but cotton is fair game, as is paper, cardboard, you name it. Don’t risk it! Store your goods in those big plastic staorage bins you can get at any pharmacy or discount store or office supply store when they’re not hung up in your closet. And check your dresser drawers weekly.

Finally, if you do have pets, please dose them monthly with Frontline, Advantix, or some other flea- and tick-repellent. This will help you do an end-run around mice that might be carriers of disease via fleas or ticks, and save your pets as well as you.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Keep off the grass. April 5, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Planning an Easter-egg hunt this weekend? You might want to do it indoors. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been horrified to read articles in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and The Wall Street Journal within the past week about the predicted massive tick outbreak heading our way this year.

Ticks, those vampires of the insect (actualy mite) world, are gross enough as it is, putting the “creepy” into creepy crawlers. Unlike mosquitoes, which you can see, hear, and feel, you seldom know a tick is sucking your blood until you just happen to see it. And where you’re likely to see it is every bit as gross as the fact that you now have to get this bloodsucker off yourself by extracting it with tweezers. Ticks favor warm, humid areas, including armpits, the groin, bra and underwear bands, the scalp, etc. Eeeewwww!

But (trust us) they’ve been known to attach themselves pretty much anywhere, including earlobes. (Talk about the ultimate pierced ears!) Silence starts screaming every time she sees one on herself, yours truly, or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh. Of course, we give Shiloh monthly applications of Frontline to try to keep ticks and fleas off her (and out of the house). But what about keeping them off us?

Not to mention that the grossness of having this sneaky bloodsucker attaching itself to your body is actually the least of your troubles. Ticks on the East Coast and the North Atlantic area, where we live, are carriers of Lyme disease. Lyme disease in dogs can cause paralysis—talk about terrifying!—but fortunately, a shot can reverse this within half an hour.

Humans who come down with Lyme aren’t that lucky. Silence and I know two people who contracted Lyme disease, and it pretty much wrecked their lives, and the lives of their spouses in consequence. The list of symptoms (typically but not always preceded by a telltale reddish bull’s-eye rash around the bite) include chills, fever, headaches, Bell’s palsy, arthritis, shooting pains, numbness in hands and feet, memory loss, swollen lymph nodes, heart palpitations, and on and on. One friend’s husband suffered deep depression and a complete personality change; our very artistic colleague had a total setback in terms of his work. And years of conventional and alternative, cutting-edge treatments have relieved but not resolved the symptoms. This is not a disease you want to contract.

We don’t like it, but we give Shiloh a dose of Frontline every month, and she’s also had her series of Lyme vaccinations. We know there’s a Lyme vaccine for people, too, but nobody’s talking about it in the media. You hear a lot about flu and shingles vaccines; why not Lyme vaccine?

Dog ticks are comparatively big (roughly the size of a sunflower seed, but swelling exponentially when engorged with your blood or your dog’s), gross, and just as likely to get on you as on your dog. But it’s the teensy-tinesy deer ticks (more correctly, black-legged ticks) that are the transmitters of Lyme disease.

Turns out, pretty much everything we thought we knew about deer ticks is wrong. And what’s right isn’t reassuring. First, the main hosts of the tiny ticks aren’t deer, but white-footed mice, which share the deer’s woodland habitat. And a major source of food for white-footed mice is acorns. (Mice? Acorns? Who knew?) 2010 saw one of the most enormous acorn crops recorded in PA. Coupled with a mild winter, it gave the mice plenty of food and ideal conditions to reproduce. And reproduce they did. As did the ticks that were along for the free ride.

Then, in 2011, the acorn crop took a nosedive, reaching record-low levels. The white-footed mouse population crashed. But ticks are far more resilient than mice. They can wait three years to attach themselves to a food source.  (Three years?! OMG.) So they lurk there, on shrubs and branches, waiting to sense a warm-blooded host. And once they do, they drop down, crawl, undetected, to a warm, moist area, and start sucking blood.

Worse still, deer tick nymphs—primary carriers of Lyme disease—are even more invisible than the pinhead-sized adults. They tend to lurk in the grass and other low-lying vegetation and attach themselves to your feet and ankles, where you’re really unlikely to see them.

It takes 3 to 4 days for an infected tick to transmit Lyme disease, so you have a window of opportunity to remove them before they do their worst. And at this point, “their worst” is almost a certainty if you don’t get them off in time—it’s estimated that 9 out of 10 deer ticks in PA now carry Lyme disease.

For those who don’t know, our friend Ben should back up at this point and mention that the name “Lyme disease” has nothing to do with limes, or even Royall Lyme men’s cologne. (To my knowledge, no studies have been done to see if ticks choose their victims based on their cologne.) It’s named for Lyme, Connecticut, where the disease was first diagnosed.

Returning to more practical matters, those who should be most concerned about Lyme disease are folks who live in rural and/or forested areas, people with oak trees on or near their properties, and people whose work and/or recreation takes them outdoors, such as farmers, gardeners, birdwatchers, hikers, hunters, fly fishers, park personnel, landscapers, yard-maintenance crews, and the like.

As children growing up in the tick-ridden South, Silence and I learned the habit of the “tick check”—looking over your feet and legs every time you came indoors in the summer—from the time we could walk. This visual check is highly effective at catching and removing ticks before they have a chance to attach themselves. But it’s not always effective, for one reason: Small and awkward-looking as they are, ticks move really fast. It’s astonishing to see how quickly a tick can move up or across a given space, such as, say, your leg. Yikes! 

So what do the experts recommend? Everything from a bunker mentality—basically annihilating your entire landscape and paving, I mean, hardscaping it, then never leaving your house and deck—to wearing white socks so you’ll have a better chance of seeing any ticks before they attach. Washing the clothes you wear outdoors in super-hot water to kill any ticks on them is another recommendation. So is dousing yourself  with the insect repellant DEET, dousing your clothes and shoes with the pesticide Permethrin, and buying pesticide-laden outdoor clothing and socks (available through Insect Shield). Spraying or wearing pesticides on your shoes and socks is especially recommended to combat the insidious deer tick nymphs.

Well, I don’t know about you, but Silence and I aren’t about to turn our yard and gardens into a post-nuclear zone. We’re not about to give up gardening and cower in the house. And we’re not about to douse ourselves and our clothes with pesticides.

That leaves visual inspection and that elusive vaccine as the most viable options. True, most people might take a dim view of your hauling your skirt or pants legs up every time you come indoors, but it’s a small price to pay for the relief of knowing you’re tick-free. And what about the Lyme vaccine?

Oh. A chat with my good friend Google revealed to our friend Ben that it was introduced in 1998 and showed a preventive response in 80% of recipients, but was withdrawn from the market in 2002. The Centers for Disease Control and physicians and scientists who specialize in vector-borne infectious diseases (such as Lyme) have lobbied to have the vaccine, or a second-generation version, produced, to no avail. “In my opinion, this is a public health fiasco,” one article quoted Stanley A. Plotkin, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying. “When else do you have a disease with that incidence [at least 30,000 reported cases in 2009 and many undiagnosed] where you know you can prevent it with a vaccine, but you don’t make it?”

Our friend Ben agrees. But lacking the vaccine, it’s wise to be especially wary after this year’s unnaturally warm winter. Experts warn that the tick invasion could begin this month. So stay alert, and please do your tick checks regularly!

For more, see “This Season’s Ticking Bomb,” www.wsj.com, and “Be on lookout for ticks this spring,” www.themorningcall.com.