Rats of New York: Bad for Business

June 9, 2016 • 7 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


Summer is upon us and to the return of sweltering heat, stagnant subway platforms, and odiferous wafts of hot garbage from every corner, we can also add our dear friend, rattus norvegicus. For those of us who didn’t take Zoology (or Latin), I am, of course, referring to New York City’s most prolific furry friend, the brown rat, aka the Norway rat, aka the sewer rat, aka that rat who snagged a gigantic pizza slice…

ratty pizza
Say hello to my little friend!

Adorable portraits with pizza notwithstanding, these rodents are a major issue for NYC residents and business. And by major, I mean there are millions of these sometimes not-so-little guys scurrying about within the city limits.

By early May, Brooklyn was leading NYC in rat infestation complaints (way to go Brooklyn?) with over 2,542 complaints reported so far this year. Manhattan was a close second with over 2,000, followed by the Bronx at around 1,900 and Queens with 1,300. Still, no one wins in this rat race. It’s been a busy year so far for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH)—and for the many residents and businesses affected by rodent populations.

So rats, definitely an issue. I mean, they’re taking selfies with pizza, so we know this is a real rodent problem. But, what can you do? Thankfully, a lot.

Know Thy Enemy

The brown rat is part of the muroidea family, which includes most rodents with whom we’re familiar, like hamsters, mice, and gerbils—only bigger. Brown rats can grow to 10 inches long, with a tail matching in length, and are thus one of the largest of the muroidea family. Males weigh an average of 12 oz. There’s still some dispute about where the brown rat originated, but many experts believe it was in China and that, through trade, they found their way to Europe and, later, North America. The brown rat’s “opportunistic lifestyle, agility, and prolific breeding potential have helped it to colonise practically every part of the world.” Rats can eat almost anything, and they are capable of producing up to 5 litters a year, with anywhere from 7-14 pups in a litter, so it doesn’t take long for a nest to multiply exponentially. And multiply they have, especially in NYC, where restaurants can find themselves with a rodent problem.

A Rodent Problem

Rats may be an evolutionary success story, but they’re bad for business. Rats are carriers of all kinds of diseases from E. Coli to Salmonella, not to mention their fleas, which are vectors for even more diseases. Because of the threat posed to public health by large rat populations, the NYC DOHMH takes the rodent problem very seriously. Unfortunately, like many City agencies, budget constraints often result in an overburdened and under-resourced capacity to mitigate the effects of rodent infestations. To address this, the Department offers free rodent mitigation workshops to any interested groups or individuals. These workshops—aptly titled Rodent Academy—range from a half-day course to a full three-day workshop. One advantage of these workshops is that you can also organize your community and get a group together for the half-day course (hmmmTownsquared could help with that!). After all, nothing says “community” like a day at Rodent Academy!

Mindful that not everyone can take three days, or even four hours, out of their day, even for Rodent Academy, the DOHMH also provides handy info guides on how to prevent rats and address an existing rodent problem on your property. Another great resource is the Centers for Disease Control, which suggests these three handy no-rat mantras to keep in mind:

  • Seal Up!                                                                                                                                               Mice can squeeze through a hole the size of a nickel, and rats can squeeze through a hole the size of a half dollar! Prevent rodents from entering the home by checking inside and outside the building.
  • Trap Up!
    Get the appropriate traps for rats (there are traps that do not kill rats if this is a concern).
  • Clean Up!
    This means making sure that there are no available food sources for rodents. Be sure to keep food in thick plastic or metal containers with tight lids and to clean up after food preparation or eating.

Sometimes though, all the sealing, trapping, and cleaning in the world isn’t enough, and you’ll need to call in a professional to deal with your rodent problem.

DIY or Go Pro?

If careful prevention measures haven’t prevented a bona fide rodent problem, more drastic measures may be required. “Drastic measures” often means a professional pest control expert…which means spending money. Professionals are just that, professionals, and there can be good reasons to use an expert: you don’t have the proper knowledge, the infestation is too big, or you can’t track the source. More often than not, hiring a professional is the right way to go because there are a lot of toxic chemicals that should not be handled by anyone but a certified professional, especially in areas where food is prepared or there are children or pets, or if you’re just worried about the use of toxins.

Still, a lot of us—especially small business owners—are DIYers and there’s nothing wrong with that. RatControlTricks.com is a website designed for the DIYer by a pest control professional. There are plenty of tricks and tips on the site that can help you determine what steps to take to rid your home or business of pests. Everyday items such as peppermint oil, mint, moth balls, or a delicious combination of peanut butter and boric acid are some potential solutions to a rodent problem. If you have any questions or concerns about an approach to pest control, it’s always best to check with a professional, or, if you’re in NYC, call the help line at 311.

It’s not like Ratatouille

For most businesses, the preventative measures outlined above will probably be all you need. Of course, restaurants are much more likely to be threatened by rodents because of the scale of food preparation. The worst possible scenario for any restaurant is a rodent problem because it can put the staff and customers at risk of disease—or just tank the business’s reputation. Even if the problem doesn’t go any further than someone just seeing a rat on the premises, for those customers, your business is no longer where they unwind and eat delicious food, but a place where they might get infected with a disease. So, whether it’s just one unwelcome visitor startling the customers or a full-on infestation, both are pretty awful scenarios.

When it comes to restaurants and rodents, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true. The same basic measures you would use at home or other type of business also apply for securing a restaurant: sealing cracks, making garbage cans inaccessible, maintaining a clean and uncluttered space, and so on.

Pest management sites for restaurants tend to focus on the following rules of thumb, whether the pests in question are rats or insects:

  1. Inspection. This is the only way to get a basic idea of where the pests are nesting and traveling, which is essential in order to decide where to concentrate deterrents or pesticide applications.
    Rodents, roaches, and flies usually leave behind some evidence of active infestations, so inspect possible harborages or hiding spots for live pests, feces, skin casts, and egg cases.
    Make sure to check trash bins, sinks, floor drains, kitchen equipment, wall voids, electrical outlets, electrical boxes, any hollow tubing on appliance legs, and any other cracks, crevices or voids where a rodent or insect may have taken up residence.
    Placing a glue board near suspected infestations will help monitor suspected problem areas, tell you what type of pest you have, and where to apply treatments.
  2. Sanitation is one of the key elements of pest control. Trash bins, sinks, floors, and kitchen equipment should be cleaned as often as possible, and especially before being left overnight. Unchecked, any one of these areas could lead to an infestation.
  3. Exclusion means keeping the pests out before they become a problem inside. Make sure there are weather-tight seals around doors and windows, caulk any openings leading to wall voids, and never leave doors or unscreened windows open. Treating for pests outside may also stop them from invading indoors.

These are all great tips for prevention but sometimes situations beyond your control arise. Two things that could lead to or exacerbate an already existing rat problem are:

  1. Neighboring businesses or residents not properly securing their garbage or dumpsters. If you notice neighbors with overflowing bins or improperly secured bins, be sure to speak with them about the issue. If they don’t address the issue, you can always report the incident by going to the NYC 311 site or calling 311.
  2. Construction or demolitions in the area. Be mindful of any large construction projects or demolitions in proximity to your restaurant. Rats are expert travelers, and if they’re displaced by construction or demolition, they will take up residence at the next nearest source of food and water. Check whether or not the construction is disturbing the foundation or is an outright demolition. In these situations, immediately report any uptick in rodents to 311, as the property owner is responsible for rodent control. 

Abandoned garbage and construction are both signs that you should watch out for rats, but rats are so endemic to NYC life, there are already countless mapping tools to give you a sense of your neighborhood’s current rat density.

The map below, courtesy of the NYC DOHMH, allows you to enter an address to check local rat levels:



Of particular interest for restaurateurs, and our favorite map by far, is this interactive map below, developed by Steven Melendez and shared courtesy of Gothamist. It tells you how many restaurants in a particular neighborhood have been cited for rats or mice.

gothamist map with ex

Keep in Mind

You probably know more about rats than you did when you started reading this article, and a rodent infestation is truly a case in which knowing is half the battle. More often than not, preventative measures will mitigate the impact of rats on your home or business. But if prevention isn’t enough and you’ve got an infestation on your hands, be mindful of your limitations, be aware of potential dangers to your and your staff’s health. If you’re in any doubt about what course of action to take, that means it’s time to call a professional!


**Know a pest control specialist you can recommend? Invite them to Townsquared to share their tips and knowledge!**


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