Muskrats just might be the most common wild animal most people know nothing about. Large families of rodents live near bodies of water all over the US. They’re a ubiquitous sight in rural and suburban streams, rivers, and lakes. You’ve probably seen quite a few muskrats in your life, even if you don’t realize it!
If you didn’t realize what a muskrat was, running into one is probably…. pretty startling. Muskrats look like giant rats. Giant rats with pretty giant claws. And they’re usually swimming… and swimming quickly, too. It’s worth knowing what muskrats are, just so they don’t freak you out quite as much if you happen to encounter one. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about big rats swimming around near you:
What are muskrats?
Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are round or stocky, medium-sized semi-aquatic rodents native to wetlands throughout North America. Although they actually aren’t rats, they closely resemble other members of their Arvicolinae subfamily, such as voles and lemmings. Muskrats are also often mistaken for beavers, because they look similar and both live in water.
Adult muskrats weigh 2-4 pounds and measure 16-25 inches long, including their 8-11 inch tails. The rodents are covered are in two layers of short, thick dark brown fur. Their thin, flattened, and hairless tails are specially shaped to help the rodent swim effectively. Muskrats have short front legs and longer hind legs. Muskrat’s back feet are partially webbed. Muskrats swim by paddling with their back legs. Muskrats also possess long claws on each foot, which they use for digging.
Where do muskrats live?
Muskrats live near any body of water. They’re common in any marshes, swamps, lakes, rivers, and streams of virtually any size. Muskrats are especially fond of slow-moving bodies of water where large ecosystems develop. Muskrats build permanent dome-shaped “lodges” out of mud, stalks, sticks, and various plant materials on river banks. They also frequently burrow underground.
Muskrats reproduce quickly and tend to live together in large families. In favorable conditions, muskrats may rear as many as 20 young in a single season. As muskrat families grow, their lodges expand to include more chambers and even levels. Muskrats generally stay close to their homes, foraging for food from nearby resources.
What do muskrats want?
Muskrats are omnivorous foragers. In other words, they’re not picky about what they eat. Their most common food source is the plant and vegetable life in the marshes near their lodges. They’ll eat the roots, stems, leaves, and fruits of any plant that grows in an aquatic environment. You may spot adult muskrats carrying vegetation back to their lodges to feed their young.
When plant food is scarce, muskrats will eat insects, fish, shellfish, reptiles, amphibians, and even small mammals. Muskrats prefer to live near overgrown areas where aquatic plant life is abundant. They prefer slow-moving or stagnant water to water with a fast current. Mud, abundant plant life, stagnant, low water, and plentiful cover all attract muskrats.
How do muskrats survive winter?
Muskrats always build their lodges so multiple “levels” rise above the water level. When water freezes over during winter, muskrats generally retreat to these levels for long periods of time. During especially cold weather, muskrat families may huddle together inside their lodges to share warmth.
When they need to eat, muskrats will continue foraging throughout winter. They’ll construct surface-level tunnels into their lodges to use after the water becomes inaccessible. Muskrats can also use their claws to dig through snow if necessary. After they dig themselves out, muskrats can continue to feed on stalky or woody river plants like cattails. Muskrats are incapable of hibernating or entering torpor.
Are muskrats dangerous?
Muskrats are non-aggressive and shy. They avoid humans and will generally flee from you if you encounter them. Like many wild animals, however, muskrats can be dangerous if you corner, startle, or antagonize them. Muskrats are also capable of transmitting various diseases to humans, including dangerous diseases like rabies.
What should I do if I encounter a muskrat?
Treat muskrats with the appropriate respect and caution you should show to any wild animal. Do not approach muskrats or make any sudden movements while near them. Back away from the muskrat slowly and steadily. Don’t try to “puff yourself up” or make aggressive movements toward the muskrat to scare it.
You may commonly encounter muskrats if you live on or near water. They may even damage your property by feeding on plants or burrowing into the ground. Muskrats may also become territorial if you encounter them near their offspring or lodges. If you have a muskrat problem, get in touch with us right away.
As you can see, muskrats aren’t as frightening or mysterious as they may seem. It turns out the Rodents of Unusual Size are just swimming around to find some food. Like most wildlife, they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone.
If muskrats aren’t leaving you alone, however, feel free to get in touch with Varment Guard. We can drive muskrats away from you and make sure they can’t bother you again.BACK TO BLOG