If you’ve seen something furry scurrying around your yard or house, you’re probably curious if you saw a rat or a squirrel. But how can you quickly and easily tell the difference between these two rodents?
Healthy squirrels have thick, bushy tails but all rats have thin, hairless tails. Squirrels are active during the day, except flying squirrels that are active at night like rats. Squirrels make noises, such as barks, chatters and whistles. You won’t hear any sounds from a rat unless it is in pain.
These are the easiest ways to spot the difference between squirrels and rats, but there are many other ways to distinguish the two. Knowing what you’re dealing with will give you a better idea of what to expect, what type of damage the animal might cause (if any), and how to handle any problems that might come up.
The 23 differences between squirrels and rats
I’ve broken down all these differences into four categories:
- Lifestyle differences
- Face and body differences
- Movement and trail differences (how these animals get around and what trails they leave)
- Differences in droppings
The info, tables, pictures and videos below will give you everything you need to know about the 23 differences between squirrels and rats. Even though they both belong to the same family, rats and squirrels are quite different in the way they look and act – if you know what to watch for…
Lifestyle differences between squirrels and rats
Squirrels prefer to live outside in trees or underground burrows. They have babies in spring and summer, and are mostly herbivores. On the other hand, rats love making nests inside buildings where they feel safe, there’s lots to chew and eat (anything goes), and they can have babies all year.
|Lives for 5-12 years in the wild||Lives about 1 year in the wild|
|Active during the day, except for flying squirrels||Active at night|
|Tree squirrels prefer to build nests in tree cavities or on tree branches high above the ground, but can build nests in chimneys or attics. Ground squirrels usually live in burrows underground but can move in under your deck||Rats make nests in holes in overgrown areas or dig burrows in the ground outside. But rats also love building nests in sheds, green houses, lofts, attics, in cavity walls, and in garages|
|Eats nuts, seeds, bulbs, acorns, fruits, berries, vegetables, eggs, and insects. Squirrels also chew on bones, bark, wood, pinecones, antlers, turtle shells, and anything else nearby to keep their teeth short||Opportunistic feeder that will eat whatever’s available, such as fruit, meat, nuts, grains, seeds, and garbage. In the wild, a rat chews on bark and twigs to keep its teeth short, but in the suburbs it often chews on building materials in houses and structures|
|Squirrels do most of their damage outside to trees and by digging holes in yards. Sometimes squirrels move roof shingles or chew through roofing materials to get into a house||Rats do most of their damage inside a house or building by chewing on wood, cables, pipes, and most construction materials|
|Have babies in early spring and near the end of summer||Can have babies at any time of year if the females have food and shelter|
|Most ground squirrels hibernate in winter, but tree squirrels don’t hibernate||Rats do not hibernate in winter and are active all year round|
|Squirrels talk to each other through sound. Depending on the type of squirrel, you might hear chatters, purrs, whistles, chirps, chatters, chucks, barks, or moans||Rats mostly talk to each other using sound and smell. They release pheromone chemicals and make ultrasonic vocalizations, which humans cannot smell or hear. But rats do squeak and hiss when they’re under threat or stressed|
|Squirrels are larger than rats and can be anything between 15 and 20 inches long (38 – 50 cm), excluding their tail||Depending on the species, adult rats can be between 5 and 18 inches long (13 – 45 cm), excluding their tail|
The following video shows different squirrels talking to each other with various sounds:
Face and body differences between squirrels and rats
Squirrels use their bushy tails for balance, communication, temperature control, and swimming. Their eyes and ears are slightly bigger than a rat’s, and a squirrel’s agile body is made for jumping and hopping. Rats tend to scurry along the ground, dragging their long tail behind them.
Flying squirrels have the longest tails, followed by tree squirrels. Ground squirrels have the shortest tails of all squirrels because they don’t need long tails to help them maneuver between branches and to break their falls.
|A squirrel’s ears are slightly larger than a rat’s, and some squirrels have fur on their ears||Rats have small, rounded, hairless ears|
|Brown, gray, red, or black eyes||Black, red, or pink eyes|
|Brown, gray, black, white or red fur, often with white markings and a white chest||Black, brown, gray, or white fur|
|Hair on top of front and back paws||No hair on the digits on their front and back paws|
|Flexible body that’s long and lean when stretched out||Long, tubular body shape when lying flat on the ground|
|Healthy squirrels have a large, bushy tail. Squirrels with mange or a fungal infection could lose the hair on their tail||Tail looks smooth but has fine hairs on it if you look closely|
|Tail tends to stand up and bend over at the top when a squirrel stands or sits||A rat’s tail tends to lie flat on the ground|
The truth is that it can be difficult to tell a squirrel from a rat because sometimes they both look a lot alike. In the following video, you can see a chance encounter between a squirrel and a rat and the fright they give each other. It’s almost as if they can’t tell the difference either until they touch snouts.
Take note that the squirrel is on the left of the screen and the rat enters the video from the right…
Movement and trail differences between squirrels and rats
Squirrels are the playful gymnasts while rats are the recluses – locked away during the daylight hours only to crawl out of their dens for food and water when necessary.
Squirrels can see very well, which they use to find food and jump around. Tree squirrels can twist their ankles 180 degrees, which gives them the ability to run down a tree head-first. Rats have very poor eyesight, move slowly, and use their whiskers and walls to feel where they are going.
|Very good vision, and they can see in front of them and on both sides. Can see colors but cannot tell the difference between red and green||Poor eyesight and color blind. Rats use their whiskers to feel their way around and often walk along walls for this reason|
|Squirrels tend to hop or jump in wave-like motions rather than walk. If you look at a squirrel trail, you’ll see irregular gaps between the paw prints, with the back toes longer than the front toes, and the back paws next to the front paws as they hop along||Rats tend to scurry on the ground along walls and drag their tail on the ground as they find their way. If you want to identify a rat trail, look for the rat tail running between the paw prints|
|Often seen standing on hind legs, especially when eating||You won’t often see a rat standing up tall on its hind legs|
Differences in the droppings of squirrels and rats
I saved the best for last! Here’s how to tell the difference between rat and squirrel poop…
Rats have dark black droppings that are moist and shiny when they are first dropped. A rat’s droppings usually have pointed ends and are longer than a squirrel’s. A squirrel’s droppings have round, smooth edges and are brown from all the nuts, seeds, and other plant materials they eat.
|SQUIRREL DROPPINGS||RAT DROPPINGS|
|Slightly lighter than a rat’s droppings and more brown than black||Dark black droppings (the darker the color, the fresher it is)|
|At 3/8 inch long, a squirrel’s droppings are smaller than the average adult rat’s droppings||The average rat dropping is ¾ inch long|
|Shaped like a tube or cylinder, with round edges. May have clumps or be soft if the squirrel is eating food with a lot of moisture in it||Shaped like a sausage or pill, with pointed or pinched ends|
|Squirrels tend to go in one place, so you will find a group of squirrel droppings together. This is usually close to where the squirrels enter and leave their nest||Rats relieve themselves whenever the urge arises. You will find most rat droppings along common paths they use to move around|
Lucky for us, one YouTuber has made a video comparing squirrel and rat droppings side by side. He really explains what to look for if you need to identify rat or squirrel droppings:
Best products to get rid of rats
Below are some of the best products available on Amazon to help you remove or kill rats: