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Dear Matt A:

Have you ever heard of rats chewing the wiring in a car engine? Rats are eating my car! What I'm wondering is, why are they doing it and how can I stop them?

-- Heather, downtown

Dear Ratmail:

I had a rodent problem. Ye olde Tom & Jerry-style traps proved deadly but gruesome. From QVC, the TV shopping network, I ordered Riddex. Roughly the size of an AC/DC transformer, this gizmo purported to change the electrical field in the household wiring, thereby (I presume) crazing their little rat minds. It worked! What's the real hocus pocus? Is there an effect on little human minds?

-- Worried, the net

Rule of the Universe #1: Rats' teeth grow constantly. Rule of the Universe #2: To wear down their teeth, rats chew on absolutely anything. It's very common for them to seek warmth and protection in an engine compartment and gnaw away wires, belts, hoses, whatever happens to be lying around. If the car's not driven frequently, they might even nest in your dashboard, your trunk, under your seats. When it comes to rats, anything's possible. If this is a repeated problem, you have a rat living somewhere near (or perhaps in) your car. First, get rid of any outdoor cat and dog food dishes, bird food, and other convenient edibles. Clean out every nook and cranny in the ratmobile (is your floorboard a litter of old chips and fries? Definite ratchow), then set traps in the area. Or, if that's just too much to deal with, call the county's Vector Control office (858-694-2888) and they will send one of their ratbusters to your home to help you wrangle the critters. We pay for this service in our property taxes (about $3.00 a year), so they're here to help.

I'm not sure I'd recommend Riddex for your car problem, but then some people swear by them. The FTC, EPA, and USDA have tested both the ultrasound types and the electromagnetic varieties. They claim the vermin-annoyers show no consistent success or, sometimes, no success at all. They're not approved for use by commercial pest-control companies because not enough is known about potential side effects. Riddex is supposed to interfere with the electromagnetic field around rodents, bugs, etc., and mess with their nervous systems so much that they leave for calmer surroundings. No one's proved that's actually what happens, assuming anything happens at all. Entomologists are particularly disdainful of plug-in pest control, saying that it will take more than ultrasound or magnetic waves to aggravate a cockroach. But on the off chance that there is something to all this, remember to buy a little lead suit and helmet for your pet mouse, gerbil, or hamster, since they too are rodents and might fall under the spell of the Riddex and move to the neighbors' house.

Recipe of the Week

Heymatt: To prevent rodent damage to wires, etc., I suggest the treatment recommended by my vet to keep cats from chewing electric cords. Get some chili paste or raw chilis, blend with a little water and oil, and paint or spray on affected surfaces. (Don't forget to wear goggles and gloves, or you'll be sorry.) It stopped my cats, but I've never tried it on rats.

-- Red Mercury, San Onofre

We didn't check out this tip in the Grandma Alice Test Kitchen and Ten-Minute Lube Salon, so if chili spray shorts out your headlights, well, that's what you get for taking weird automotive advice from us. But I look forward to the day when we all can tootle down the road, rat-free and smelling like salsa.

Rat Wranglers of the Wild West

In our ongoing campaign to make your life richer and fuller, we offer this recent communication from somewhere on the frontier. Word has just arrived out there that we once discussed how to get rid of rats that eat the wiring of your car. So here's a slice of life in Rising Star. That's between Pioneer and Chuckville, by the way.

There are rats and tree squirrels on our property. I can't forget the day I raised the hood on my relatively new Nissan truck to examine its pristine engine. There were little foot prints and evidence of chewing. Worst of all was the urine. It aged a shiny aluminum tappet cover in a hurry. I asked the locals, and the answer was moth balls. So when we parked the truck in our shed, I raised the hood and placed an open plastic container of moth balls on the engine. It was true. No footprints, pee, or chew. As we got lazy about raising the hood each time we parked, the open tray of mothballs on the shed floor near the front of the truck seems to work as well.

--Bob Wagner, Rising Star, Texas.

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