How to Tell If You Have Squirrels vs. Rats

side by side image of squirrels and rats

You can’t catch a rat with a mouse trap, and squirreling around from removal method to removal method does not make for an effective rodent control strategy. To start, here’s how to tell if you have squirrels vs. rats: Take note of their droppings, when they’re active, and the type of damage they’re causing. Using the tips below will help you save money and precious time keeping vermin out of your living spaces.

Squirrels vs. Rats: What Are the Differences?

Although both of these animals are rodents (a classification taken from the Latin name for “to gnaw”), there are still important distinctions between them — each of which can help you determine which pest is intruding into your space. 


Squirrels: Dark brown or black, smaller and rounder than rat poop; similar in size to jelly beans (about one-fourth inch long); uniform thickness and length. 

Rats: Found in piles; shaped like pill capsules (about three-fourths of an inch long with blunt ends) with a more irregular shape. 

Physical Characteristics

rat in a house
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  • Larger than rats (measuring up to 20 inches in length)
  • Bushy tails that move/flop around
  • Soft fur that can be gray, brown, red, or even black
  • Large eyes compared to face size
  • Squirrel skull is longer/more oval-shaped


  • Shorter than squirrels (up to 16 inches long)
  • Hairless, scaly tails 
  • Norway rats: small ears, coarse fur, blunt noses, bulky bodies
  • Roof rats: Large ears, pointy noses, thin bodies
  • Coarse fur that’s typically gray, brown, or black
  • Rat skull is shorter/wider

Behavioral Characteristics


  • Active during the day
  • Nest in tree holes; in homes, nest similarly to roof rats (in attics, walls)
  • Squirrel sounds: chirping, squeaking, grunting
  • Collect and store food in various hiding places for later use
  • Generally live alone and are very territorial (will fight other squirrels for their space)


  • Nocturnal
  • Norway rats nest in low areas (e.g., basements, beneath foundations, subways, underground)
  • Roof rats nest in high areas (e.g., roofs, attics, trees)
  • Rat sounds: squeaking, scratching, hissing, chirping
  • Opportunistic eaters/don’t store food
  • More social; tend to live in colonies


an image of a squirrel holding a nut
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Squirrels: Nuts, seeds, plants, fungi, insects, and sometimes rats (when other food is scarce)

Rats: Anything they can find, including garbage, grains, meat, nuts, fruits, veggies

Yes, in an extended family sort of way. They’re both rodents because they have those ever-growing front teeth, but they come from different family classifications; squirrels belong to the sciuridae family while rats belong to muridae. Despite being loosely related via the overarching order rodentia, squirrels and rats are different species and therefore cannot mate with each other. 

Also, squirrels have been evolving for a much longer time than rats — millions of years compared to rats’ approximately 200,000 years. The evolutionary differences occur at the family level; for example, the sciuridae family includes a multitude of species like squirrels (of course), chipmunks, marmots, flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. The muridae family, on the other hand, includes rats, mice, gerbils, and melomys.

What Damage Do Squirrels vs. Rats Cause?

rat near damaged furniture
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The majority of the time, squirrels tend to create mayhem affecting the outside structure of your home, rather than the inside (unless of course they end up nesting in your attic or walls). Examples of damage squirrels cause the most include:

  • Digging holes in your yard (retrieving and/or storing food)
  • Eating crops/garden bounty
  • Chewing through roofs and siding to gain house entry
  • Sometimes nesting in attics, walls, or garages

Rats wreak more havoc inside your home:

  • Nesting in walls, basements, attics, or garages
  • Chewing through wiring (a fire hazard), furniture, walls, and books
  • Leaving trails of poop and pee/increasing disease exposure
  • Getting into foods in pantry and spreading disease that way
  • Digging burrows underneath foundation (Norway rats)

FAQ About Squirrels vs. Rats

How long do rats and squirrels live?

Squirrels: Five to 10 years in the wild; females can give birth twice per year

Rats: Two years in the wild; females can give birth six times a year

Do squirrels come out at night?

Squirrels are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day. You typically won’t see a squirrel roaming around after dusk, as they retreat to their nests at night to sleep.

Are squirrels smarter than rats?

Short answer: Yes. Experts say all rodents have pretty high intelligence, but squirrels take it to another level. Rather than use established pathways like rats do, for example, squirrels run all over the place, varying their routes, it’s said, to throw their predators off. They’ll also play dead until they feel it’s safe to move and run to safety. 

Further, while rats are opportunistic feeders, squirrels plan ahead to avoid having to eat whatever’s around, storing nuts and seeds for the winter when things are scarce. And they don’t hide their entire stash in one place, either; just in case another animal finds their bounty, squirrels choose to maintain many different stashes to lessen their risk of losing it all.

What’s the difference between squirrel and rat footprints?

An easy way to tell whether you’re dealing with a squirrel or a rat is to look at the tracks they leave behind, be it in the snow, in the dirt, or even in dust in your home. For one, squirrel tracks won’t be as close together as rat tracks, since squirrels leap around to get from place to place. On the contrary, rats will not only leave behind paw prints, but they’ll also leave behind drag marks from their tails. Rat prints will also most likely be seen along walls on paths they use over and over.

Here’s a helpful guide on How to Identify Rat Footprints.

Hire a Pro to Protect Against Squirrels and Rats

Still not quite sure if you’re seeing squirrel or rat droppings or which rodent is making that chirping sound you keep hearing? No worries; a rodent control pro near you will be able to discern all the little details and let you know, definitively, which rodent is plaguing your home.

Elimination methods are different for squirrels and rats, so after a thorough inspection, they’ll share their results and develop a specific plan to rid your home of the rodents and put in place preventative measures, so the pests won’t return.

Main Image Credits:
Squirrel: birdsonline / Canva Pro / License ; Rat: George Dolgikh / Canva Pro / License created using Canva Pro

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler has a passion for writing and editing — but a phobia of bees and wasps. Living near the woods, she's dealt with her fair share of mice, skinks, and other outside critters that sometimes find their way inside. Besides learning new ways to keep homes pest-free, she also enjoys singing, reading, and binge-watching just about every show that ever existed.