A muskrat is a medium-sized rodent. It is native to North America, but has been introduced to South America, Asia, and Europe as well. A fully grown male muskrat is about 16 to 28 inches long from nose to tail and weighs from 1.3 pounds to 4.4 pounds. Muskrats are not dangerous to humans, but they can cause damage to backyard ponds.
Muskrats spend most of their lives in the water and they dig their burrows in the banks of ponds and other small bodies of water. While they are not as destructive as beavers, their digging can cause problems for homeowners. There are safe and affordable ways to remove muskrats from backyard ponds. Repellents and traps are effective deterrents and preventative measures include limiting their food supply.
This article explains the behavior patterns of muskrats, what foods they prefer to eat, and remedies for removing them from ponds where their digging can lead to erosion, leakage, and possible flooding.
How to Get Rid of Muskrats in a Pond
Muskrats live in lodges or burrows, depending on their environment. In bodies of water with steep banks, they’ll dig a series of burrows, or tunnels, that start underwater and gradually lead up above the water level. In shallow areas like wetlands and ponds, they’ll construct dome-shaped lodges above the water level using mud and vegetation. These dens are dome-shaped structures that are sometimes mistaken for beaver lodges.
Muskrat burrows are a frequent source of water-related damage, including seepage and erosion. Lodges aren’t quite as harmful, but these structures normally contain a family of three to five hungry muskrats, on average. Considering their voracious appetites, this can lead to a quick depletion of aquatic plants, which can have disastrous effects on the pond’s ecosystem.
Muskrats also multiply rapidly, which may cause them to look outside their normal environment for food. As a result, suburban neighborhoods have become familiar with the sight of muskrats going through their yards or trash cans.
It’s important to get muskrats out of a pond as soon as you see them. Many people call professional animal trappers, or purchase muskrat traps, which come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. By baiting these traps with pieces of root vegetables and apples, you can easily trap one or more of these critters at a time.
Trapping is not a long-term solution if there’s already a family of muskrats in your area. Even if you trap what appears to be an entire family, muskrats are prolific breeders, so there may be other family units that you’re unaware of. Animal traps also need to be checked and replenished with new bait on a regular basis, since it takes at least several days on average to trap a wild animal.
Repellents are a more affordable solution than trapping. These store bought sprays mimic the scent of urine from predators, like coyotes and snakes. Other repellents taste like foods that muskrats hate, such as onion, garlic, and cayenne pepper. There’s no guarantee these products will work since it takes a lot more than an unpleasant scent to keep a muskrat away. They also need to be reapplied frequently to keep the scent fresh.
A long-term, but more effective solution, is to target their food supply. For example, try adding agents in the water to control the growth of water grasses, which muskrats love to eat. You can also mow the grass on water banks more frequently to further eliminate their food sources.
One method that should be avoided is rodent poison, which you can purchase online or buy from a garden supply store. On the one hand, these will get you immediate results without the hassle of re-baiting traps. On the other hand, being poisoned isn’t a quick and painless death. Poisons can also injure or kill your pet, or any other animal that comes in contact with it. That’s why it’s best to avoid using poison as a way to get rid of muskrats.
After you’ve driven out the muskrats, consider fencing in your pond with 1-inch hardware mesh and 3-foot tall stakes. Fencing is a way to keep out a new colony of muskrats after you’ve removed the old one. Make sure the fence is at least 2 feet tall and 1 foot deep into the soil level. If that doesn’t work, line the mesh all along the pond bank making sure to keep it 3 feet below the water level, which is the standard depth for a muskrat burrow.
Do Muskrats Cause Any Damage?
Muskrats cause significant damage to ponds when they burrow into the banks, eventually causing the pond to collapse or lose significant amounts of water. They’re also a common source of leaks in reservoirs and other man-made water retaining structures. If these structures are near gardens or farms, the muskrats will also go after the flowers and vegetables.
The other concern is the spread of diseases, such as rabies. While attacks on humans are rare, a muskrat could certainly bite a persistent or overly curious dog. That’s why it’s essential to make sure your dog is up to date on its rabies vaccinations. Another disease you can contract from muskrats is Leptospirosis, a kidney-related disease that’s spread through the urine of infected animals.
It should be noted that transmission of diseases from muskrats is relatively rare. The bigger concern is the damage they’ll do to your pond, yard, or garden, especially if there’s lots of plants or vegetables for them to eat. That’s why it’s essential to discourage these critters from your property as soon as you can.
What Do Muskrats Like Eating?
Muskrats are technically omnivores, which means they can eat both animals and plants. However, the average muskrat mainly sticks to a plant-based diet consisting of aquatic plants, such as roots, water grasses, and leaves.
They will also feed on snails, mussels, crayfish, and other small aquatic animals. As a general rule, muskrats will eat animals along with plants if there’s a readily available supply in their area. Additionally, it makes sense to rely on animal food sources as plants become scare with the approach of winter. They may also forage for food in backyards and trash cans if there are homes nearby.
Once the muskrat finds a tasty morsel, it will take it back to a feeding platform, which is a flat, elevated pile of mud and vegetation outside its den. Here, the muskrat can enjoy its food in peace while staying safe from predators.
Muskrats are a source of food for larger animals such as coyotes, foxes, snakes, hawks, eagles, and bears. Baby muskrats are tempting to snapping turtles and otters. If you have muskrats on your property you may likely attract these bigger predators which is another reason to remove them.
How Do Muskrats Survive Winter?
One thing you won’t find in their homes is a cache of food they’ve gathered during the fall. That’s because muskrats can forage for food under the ice thanks to their ability to hold their breath for up to 15 minutes at a time. They do this by slowing down their heart rate under water and drawing in oxygen from their muscle tissue.
Still, life isn’t easy for a muskrat family during the winter. One of the biggest problems is the fact that water freezes during the winter, creating a solid surface for predators to walk on. As a result, it’s not uncommon for fishing and wildlife enthusiasts to come across lodges that have clearly been broken into by a fox, weasel, or other hungry predator.
There are also cases where particularly cold temperatures cause the opening of a lodge to freeze shut. In that case, the entire family may be imprisoned for days or weeks, and die from a lack of food and/or oxygen.
What Time of Day are Muskrats Most Active?
Muskrats are generally considered nocturnal, though they’re actually crepuscular, if you want to get technical. While nocturnal animals are most active at night, crepuscular species usually come out during twilight, i.e., the hours between dawn and dusk.
A muskrat’s primary concern–after building and maintaining its home–is finding food. When food sources like plants and small aquatic animals are in short supply, they’ll look for nourishment at all hours of the day. They’ll also travel out of their comfort zone and make their way to people’s yards and gardens, which is why they’re generally regarded as pests.
How Deep Do Muskrats Burrow?
While pond or wetland dwelling muskrats live in lodges, those living in areas with steep banks will create burrows, or tunnels that are dug right into the banks. These burrows are about 6 to 8 inches in diameter and go up to 3 feet below the water level. The resulting holes are often large enough to cause significant damage, including floods and structural damage.
This is particularly concerning to farmers with agricultural ponds or those who live near water reservoirs. That’s why it’s important to discourage muskrats from gathering in these areas through humane methods, like reducing the growth of plants such as water grasses and leaves, which muskrats love to eat.
Do Muskrats Hibernate?
Muskrats do hibernate in the winter by hiding out in their lodges or burrows with the rest of their family. On average, muskrats live with 3 to 5 other family members, which is beneficial for generating body heat throughout the colder months.
People often think of hibernation as a period of deep sleep, but it’s actually a state of “suspended animation,” where the animal’s breathing and heart rate slows down. This causes a drop in body temperature, which slows down the metabolism and helps the animal to conserve energy throughout the winter.
During hibernation, the muskrat will be largely inactive, preferring to stay huddled with its family members. Of course, it still needs to eat, but unlike many other hibernating mammals, muskrats don’t store food for the winter.
Luckily, they have numerous adaptations that allow them to dive underwater for food. For example, they have thick, small hairs on their feet that act as webbing. This allows them to propel through the water. They also have thick, waterproof fur that keeps them insulated in freezing temperatures. These features, along with their ability to breathe underwater for long periods of time, helps them find food in areas that most other mammals wouldn’t be able to access.
Do Muskrats Live Alone?
Muskrats are family-oriented creatures that stay with one mate for life. They live together with their young until the home gets too crowded, at which point, the mother will kick them out. In that case, they’ll need to make their own way in the world by finding a mate and building a home for themselves and their offspring.
The competition to find a mate, as well as territory on which to build their home, is incredibly fierce. During the spring, muskrats will fight with one another to the point of seriously injuring or killing each other. Once they find a life partner, they’ll work together to create a burrow or lodge, where they can rest and raise their young while keeping themselves safe from predators.
In streams, lakes, or ponds with banks that are deep enough, the muskrat will create a burrow right in the bank with an underwater entrance. In marshes or shallow ponds, they’ll create lodges, also known as push-ups, which can be up to 3 feet high. They’ll also build a flat, elevated pile of mud and vegetation known as a feeding platform, where they can eat without being distrubed by predators.
Where Do Muskrats Sleep?
Muskrats sleep inside their burrow or lodge, which are designed to protect them from bad weather, as well as predators. Within a lodge, there may be several sleeping areas, depending on its size. On average, muskrat lodges are 6 to 8 feet in diameter at the base, with walls that are 1 to 2 feet thick.
As a general rule, muskrats sleep during the day and are most active during twilight. However, they’ve been known to hunt at all hours of the day depending on how hungry they are. Lack of food sources in their natural environment can also cause them to hunt at odd hours, especially near farms and suburban areas with vegetable gardens.
The result is more and more frequent muskrat sightings in urban and suburban communities, where most residents aren’t quite sure how to deal with them. While muskrats attacks on humans are rare, they can be very aggressive if they feel scared or cornered, so it’s best to avoid approaching or handling them.
Do Muskrats Cut Down Trees?
Although they’re only distant relations, muskrats and beavers share many similarities. For example, they’re both rotund animals with thick, brown coats. They’re both excellent swimmers, with the ability to dive and hold their breath underwater. Thus, it’s no surprise that many people assume muskrats eat trees, just like beavers.
However, muskrats eat aquatic plants like water grass and cattails, and sometimes small aquatic animals. They have no interest in chewing through trees, or using branches and logs to build their homes. Unlike beavers, muskrat lodges are mostly made from plants.
Part of the confusion may be due to the muskrat’s teeth, which are very similar to a beaver’s. Both species have oversized orange or yellow teeth in the front of their mouth, which can chew through just about anything. Beavers, however, are about 40 pounds on average, whereas adult muskrats weigh about 4 pounds. As a result, it’s not quite as easy or efficient for the muskrat to chew through a tree.
Are Muskrats Bad for a Pond?
There’s no denying the damage that can occur as a result of the muskrat’s burrowing habits. The average burrow is about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, which is a pretty significant hole to have in the bank of your pond, especially when it goes several feet below the water level.
In many cases, the damage goes unnoticed until the bank collapses, or there’s a significant drop in the water level. You may also detect a reduction in the population of fish or other aquatic wildlife and plants, since muskrats are voracious eaters that live together as a family.
In spite of this damage, there may be reason to coexist with muskrats if they provide benefits to the pond’s ecosystem. Beavers, for example, build dams that reduce down-stream flooding and filier sediments and toxins that can flow into our oceans. Unfortunately, there are no such environmental benefits from muskrat burrows and push-ups.
On the other hand, muskrats are an important food source for predators, such as mink, weasels, and foxes. It can also be argued that muskrats keep aquatic plants like cattails and bulrushes from raging out of control. This is a legitimate concern in marshes, where overgrowth of these plants can cause the marshes to dry out. On the other hand, extensive burrowing in pond banks will eventually lead to significant damage that’s difficult and costly to repair.
As a result, it’s essential to keep an eye out for muskrats, which isn’t easy since they spend much of their time underwater. You can, however, look for signs of muskrat activity, such as footprints with 4 toes in the front and 5 in the back, along with a long tail mark between the prints. Additionally, check for muskrat dropping on dry, elevated surfaces, like tree stumps, rocks, or feeding platforms.
Do Muskrats Kill Fish?
While muskrats prefer a vegetarian diet, they are known to eat small aquatic animals, including fish, amphibians, turtles, crayfish, and mussels. Along with their large, sharp incisors, they have claws that make it a cinch to open up mussels and tear through the shell of a crayfish.
Keep in mind, however, that an adult muskrat is only about 4 pounds on average. That means they won’t be able to go after larger varieties of fish, such as bass or pike. In fact, pike have been known to prey on baby muskrats, who are extremely vulnerable due to their tiny size, and inability to swim or feed themselves until they’re 30 days old.
If you’re a landowner with a pond, muskrats pose a serious threat if your pond is stocked with smaller fish like goldfish, minnows, and algae eaters. Even if you have larger varieties of fish, there may be problems sustaining their food supply if they feed on the same kinds of plants as muskrats.
Of course, these concerns are secondary compared to the damage they can cause with their burrows. A muskrat burrow can compromise the structural integrity of your pond, causing the bank to collapse. This can lead to serious water drainage, which can result in numerous health problems your fish.
What Do Baby Muskrats Eat?
Baby muskrats, known as kits, are born hairless and weigh only about 22 grams at the time of their birth. They’re completely helpless until they’re about 30 days old, when they develop the ability to swim and feed themselves. They’re expected to be fully independent by 6 weeks, though it still takes anywhere from 6 months to a year for a muskrat to fully mature.
Once they can feed themselves, they’ll swim and dive through the water to look for food, just like their parents. Favorite foods include aquatic plants, like water grass, cattails, and water lilies. They’ll even go after small animals, like frogs, crayfish, turtles, and mussels. In spite of their independence, young muskrats continue to live with their parents in the family burrow or lodge.
At some point, however, the home will get too crowded since muskrats are prolific breeders. Females can produce 2 to 3 litters a year, and the gestational period only lasts about 22 to 30 days. If the mom feels like there’s not enough room, she’ll kick the older kits out of the group, who will then need to fight for and establish their own territory.
What is a Muskrats Favorite Food?
While muskrats are omnivores, they clearly prefer a vegetarian diet consisting of arrowheads, sedges, water lilies, and other aquatic plants. Their love of vegetation extends to garden vegetables, especially root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. They’re also known for going after herbs and flowers, which makes them an overall nuisance to homeowners and gardeners.
Due to their similarity to beavers, there’s a misconception that muskrats eat trees, but this is not true. Muskrats, however, do possess long, powerful teeth that are orange or yellow, just like the teeth you would see on a beaver. They also have a second set of lips behind their front teeth that allow them to cut through underwater vegetation without swallowing water.
These clever adaptations are useful for hunting small underwater animals like snails, fish, frogs, and mussels. Regardless of what they choose to eat, muskrats drag their food to a feeding platform near their burrow or lodge. The platform is a flat, elevated pile of mud and vegetation, where a muskrat can eat in peace without worrying about predators.
Mike Zhang. Founder of FamilyLifeShare