16 Tips For Keeping Your Home Pest-Free

Unexpected guests are bad enough, but when they gnaw, wriggle, slither and chomp their way into your house, that’s when you’ve got to get tough. Oregon Home asked pest control experts how to wrangle the termites, mice, carpenter ants, moles, skunks, squirrels, bats, rats and various other vermin who are trying to stake a claim on your property.  

[1. Know that the dog or cat food you leave outside for pets is the perfect magnet for critters such as opossums.]

Just who are you really feeding when you set out kibbles in your backyard for your little Peanut or Baker? According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Living with Wildlife” page on its website (dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/living_with), leaving pet food outside is as good as sending an engraved dinner invitation to rats, mice and raccoons. And if you’re a pet-free-but bird-feeding family, realize that the No. 1 contributor to rats and mice is an outdoor bird feeder. Birds are messy and drop many of the seeds on the ground, which attracts rodents. If you really want to keep feeding your flying friends, you need to be diligent every day about picking up seeds that fall on the ground, says Tim TenBrink, a former science teacher who is the co-owner of Critter Control, a Portland-based business that specializes in “urban wildlife conflict.”

[2. Don’t just seal a vermin’s entry point and think your problem is solved.]

When you see an opening you suspect is the front door for Chez Squirrel, it’s tempting to immediately seal it, but don’t do a same-day repair. You could make matters worse, says TenBrink, if you unintentionally seal the critter inside your home. When it dies, you’re faced with a major odor factor.

[3. Take all the steps you need to carry out to rid your home of unwanted critters.]

There are three steps for success when ushering wildlife guests out of your home. Step one: Find the hole or opening where they’re getting in. Step two: Trap the animal. Step three: Seal up the opening. “A lot of people forget to do Step 2,” says TenBrink. That means you’re only partially solving the problem and—”Ding, dong!“—your guests will be back shortly.

[4. Don’t beat yourself up for being a bad housekeeper if you find a mouse in your house.]

“It’s a myth that mice are in your house because of bad housekeeping,” says TenBrink. “Most people associate mice and rats with filth, but what rodents are looking for are food and water sources.”

Geary Lydell, the co-owner of Guaranteed Pest Control, a 60-year-old family business in Beaverton, Ore., agrees. “You can keep the cleanest house in town and still have a rodent problem.”

He points out, however, that mice and rats are more prone to forage for food in areas filled with dirt and clutter. So mice can show up even if you’re a Nelda Neatnik but are more likely to appear if you’re a Derek Dirtball.

[5. Rethink the size of the entry point a pest needs to shimmy through to gain access to your home.]

Think you’ll never have a raccoon intruder because you don’t have a pet door which it could slink in through? According to TenBrink, a raccoon only needs a 4-inch-wide gap to get into your home. (Group scream!) A mouse can slither through a gap the width of a dime. A rat can squeeze through a gap the size of a quarter. Carpenter ants—an insidious creature known throughout Oregon—like to get into your house through wood beams and tongue-in-groove ceilings, says Scott Sneer, the CEO of Alpha Ecological Pest Control, which specializes in eco-friendly pest control.

That means you must be vigilant about eliminating gaps around rooflines, foundation screens, water heaters, pipes and plumbing, chimneys and dryer vents. “Animals typically get into a structure through man-made gaps,” says TenBrink.

[6. Don’t rely on your grandparents’ pest prevention techniques or too-weird-to-be-true tips you can find on the Internet.]

Does your grandmother swear by a bunny slope mound of mothballs to stink squirrels out of an attic? Seen something on the Web about using fingernail clippings to get rid of moles? Well, when it comes to moles, for example, professional trappers say most home remedies don’t work. This includes topping the mole tunnels criss-crossing your lawn with fingernail clippings or mothballs; sprinkling horse urine or caster oil where you see evidence of moles; using mole vibration rods; and trying to smoke out the moles with in-tunnel smoke bombs.

The only thing that really works to rid a lawn of moles, says Aronson, is to remove their water source, which means letting your lawn go dormant.

Whether you’re trying to keep your lawn mole-free or your attic empty of a squirrel momma and her babies, you may find that the best form of prevention for most pests is a regular maintenance program with an expert pest controller, says Lydell. “The goal is to be proactive, not reactive,” he says. “We may see something you don’t and we can nip your pest problem in the bud before it explodes.”

[7. Start a regular maintenance program to keep your property pest-free.]

Don’t just turn a blind eye to potential entry points to your home and hope for the best, say the experts. It’s important to keep on top of regular home maintenance such as cleaning gutters, keeping brush trimmed away from the house, checking crawl spaces once a year, and inspecting dryer vents and pipes for openings. Doing these things go far to prevent a pest control problem. “You’re the best inspector I’ll ever have,” says Sneer.

To keep carpenter ants and other insects out of your house, you need to keep shrubs and plants trimmed several inches away from your home. Lydell also advises to jump on fixing a moisture source immediately (think leaky faucet, shower or roof) so that carpenter ants are deterred. Wood, warmth and moisture represent the holy grail for the Pacific Northwest’s most insidious structural pest.

[8. Bone up on the particular pest that has you under seige.]

There are all kinds of resources out there to help you understand which pests are running underfoot, how to get rid of them and how to prevent them from returning. While there is a lot of free advice on the Internet, Sneer tells clients to stick with research that comes from universities and your local extension office. “Their goal is discovery and science,” he says. “A university isn’t trying to sell you something.”

[9. Don’t expect to resolve your pest problem as quickly as the snap of a trap.]

When it comes to outsmarting an invading critter, start with a quart of patience, add a cup of perseverance and add another cup of patience for good measure. Yes, you want a quick fix to your pest problems, but experts say that if you want it done correctly, it can take a while. Carpenter ants are a particularly difficult problem in Oregon because of the prevalence of wood and moisture. “If they hatch out and are flying in your home, you’ve already got a full-blown problem,” says Sneer.

[10. Especially mind your home’s gaps during the middle of Oregon’s rainy season.]

According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the busiest time of year for conflicts between wildlife and people is the spring breeding season, which begins as early as February for some species. Your attic or crawlspace can look pretty cozy to a soon-to-be mother-critter in search of a den or nest site to raise her young out of the reach of predators. Raccoon mothers, for example, are very aggressive to deal with, says TenBrink, who has extricated many of them from attics. “They’re very protective of their babies and have a, ‘Hell no, we won’t go!’ attitude,” he says. “It requires a real balancing act to meet the expectations of the homeowner and take care of the problem in a timely way.”

[11. Before you expose your family to toxic sprays or pellets, understand the biology of the pest you’re trying to rid your home of.]

Have you ever bought an off-the-shelf ant bait trap, set it out in the path of the marching-band-straight line of insects high-stepping it across your countertop and up the side of your cabinets, and then followed up with a thorough spraying of insecticide to make triple sure you eliminate the ants? Well, you threw money—and time—down the drain when you contaminated your countertops with the insecticide. When it comes to eliminating ants from your home, you need to use the worker ants to deliver the pesticide-laced food back to the Queen ant, who must be eliminated to kill the entire colony.

“You may think you need to bring in heavy artillery to get the job done, but that’s not true,” says Sneer, whose Vancouver, Wash.-based company uses ecofriendly products and some 30 technicians to service homes and businesses throughout Washington and Oregon. “One of the keys to our success is that we understand the biology of a pest, plus we use the lowest toxicity possible. Instead of doing a huge blanket spray in a home, we understand where and how the pest lives,
and we target those areas.”

[12. Use the “trap and tarp” method to outfox a marauding skunk.]

You know you’ve got street cred in the wildlife control world when you’ve relocated many skunks—and have never been sprayed. Follow TenBrink’s surefire method for not getting sprayed if you’re trying to trap a skunk. Get a large, dark tarp and wrap it around a cage or trap. The skunk will walk into the cage and be unable to see you. Since skunks spray only when they feel threatened and can see their predator, you should emerge stink free. “Skunks have poor eyesight to begin with, and the dark tarp will help,” says TenBrink. “The key is to be slow, be quiet and get a cover on them.”

[13. Don’t put off dealing with a pest infestation.]

At the first sign of a mole tunneling in your yard, call in a mole expert, says Mike Aronson, the owner of Mole Masters, who has seen moles ruin newly laid (and expensive) sod in a matter of a few hours.

And everyone knows that mice and rats reproduce as fast as you can screech “Eeeeeeeeeeeeek!” and jump on the nearest couch. Baby mice reach sexual maturity within one or two months and then start reproducing, says Lydell, the co-owner of Guaranteed Pest Control, a 60-year-old family business in Beaverton, Ore. “An average mouse can have 60 or so pups in a life cycle,” he says. “Within 30 days of spotting a mouse, if you don’t take care of it, you could have a rodent problem that’s out of control.”

The prize procrastinator has to be a Critter Control client who waited 10 years to get help with the squirrels in his attic. “By the time we got there, we trapped and removed 21 squirrels that were living in his attic,” says TenBrink.

[14. Less is often more when it comes to applying pesticides.]

If you’re a DIY pest controller, Sneer urges you to follow a product’s instructions closely and not to use more than the amount the directions recommend. “Overdoing it is unnecessary, and you can harm the environment,” he says.

[15. Know the laws about relocating certain critters.]

If you’re tender-hearted and want to move a furry creature to a new and better home, your well-intentioned animal altruism could backfire. It’s illegal to relocate most types of wild animals, says TenBrink. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife rules are strict about that, so do some research before packing a bag for Sammy Skunk and shipping him off to his new country estate.

[16. Be alert to tell-tale signs that you’re sharing your home with pests.]

Carpenter ants, for example, are notoriously difficult to spot. “They primarily are nocturnal, so unless you’re walking around at night with a flashlight, you’re probably not going to see anything,” Sneer says. Early signs of them include small piles of wood shavings that appear on furniture or on the floor, a result of the pests tunneling through wood beams or tongue-in-groove ceilings.

You know you have moles if you see tunnels in soil, bark dust or grass, says Aronson, although there can be more subtle “veins” in the soil made by smaller moles.

Then again, sometimes it’s really obvious when you have a pest problem. TenBrink tells the story of getting an emergency call to trap an opossum running loose in someone’s house. “We finally found it in a kid’s bedroom,” he says. “It was sitting on the bed surrounded by a bunch of stuffed animals.”