Pando

You already have bed bugs. Now get ready to deal with rat mites.

By David Holmes , written on October 16, 2014

From The News Desk

You're not going to like this.

Imagine taking the two most disgusting creatures that torment New Yorkers. Now combine them into one creepy abomination whose capacity to repulse is nothing short of complete; a nightmare-monster associated with the diseases of rats, but small enough, like a bed bug, to creep into your bed while you sleep to tear away tiny bits of your flesh, leaving your skin itchy and red, and your ability to ever relax again just totally gone.

No, this isn't a horror movie. This is another awful reality New Yorkers signed up for when they struck the Faustian bargain of living in this city. I'm talking about rat mites. And while you're toasting mimosas at brunch or Tindering at dive bars, they are waiting for you. Waiting to feast on your delicious blood.

The moment that separated life before knowing rat mites were a thing and life after knowing rat mites were a thing came when a friend in my neighborhood discovered a horrid constellation of itchy, red bites on her chest.

"I have rat mites."

"Rat mites? What are rat mites?"

"Mites that live on rats and bite people."

"Oh, cool. I'm dead now."

Rat mites, which scientists innocently call Ornithonyssus bacoti, are tiny, just-visible specks of menace that feed on the blood of rats. Although they prefer rodent blood, often they'll be like "fuck it" and bite humans, particularly if their host-rat has died. They will travel several hundred feet to snack on you, so there's a good chance that if you get bit, your building has a serious dead rat problem. Yay! And despite the fact that most people I know had never even heard of these bloodsucking freaks, Rodney McDonald of Brooklyn Pest Control tells me that he gets "a couple of calls every week" about rat mite infestations.

In the battle between the rat and the bed bug for the most feared and loathed houseguest squatting in New York apartments, bb's have at least one upside: They don't spread diseases. In a massive report on rat pathogens published this week, researchers found a host of diseases in New York's rat population, 18 of which they'd never even seen before. The diseases included food-borne pathogens like Salmonella and something "resembling" Hepatitis C, though the scientists are unclear whether or not the unknown viruses could be linked to human illness. Not for nothing, the researchers didn't find the bubonic plague, but they only studied 133 specimens and there are, oh, roughly 16 million more rats in the city of New York -- Plenty more rat-space to explore here.

Assuming you haven't already packed your bags and moved back to Ohio or wherever, you're probably worried that rat mites will spread all those gross pathogens carried by their hosts. In the one bright spot of our new collective nightmare, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine say there are no documented cases of rat mites spreading disease to humans. However, scientists have been able to facilitate rat-mite-to-human disease transmission in a lab, so better leave New York and all your dreams and ambitions behind now just to be safe.

Okay, there is a little more good news: The city has recently ramped up its efforts to fight its rat epidemic, allocating over $600,000 on rat poison and to close off holes that lead to nests. (I don't know why but the fact that we call rat homes "nests" is about the most disgusting thing I've ever heard). And according to the Alameda County Vector Control Services District, getting rid of the rats is the best way to get rid of the mites -- rat mites will not complete their life cycle on a diet of human blood alone.

But while New York's rat problem can be managed, the invasive rodents will likely never be completely eradicated.

"As long as there are human beings in New York City, there will be rats, because they live off human garbage — that's their No. 1 thing," Joel Grassi, a sort of bug exorcist who holds the amazing dual job of exterminator and Baptist minister, tells the AP.

No one said living in New York would be easy. When Frank Sinatra sang, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," I'm pretty sure he was talking about rat mites. But there's a limit to how much grime and grim bug-related trauma a person can take, and this is coming from someone who's had bed bugs. Twice. The only things we can do are to be tidy, not leave food out, and dispose of garbage properly. And when you wake up with rat mite bites, call your landlord and a proper exterminator as soon as you can -- That is, as soon as you stop screaming into your pillow in a state of abject horror.

Rat mites, man. This fucking city.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas]