Residents on Hilton Head Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton are reporting an abundance of marsh rats this year, but it's not clear whether the rodents' population has increased as dramatically as some think.
The situation has caused a flood of calls to pest-control companies.
"I've had crews in every plantation almost every single day trapping rats and repairing homes to make sure they can't get in," said Billy Karijanian, director of operations for Critter Management on Hilton Head. "We are working on 50 to 60 homes a week, trapping rats and critter-proofing the home."
Karijanian said the population has exploded because of last winter being warmer than usual and plenty of rain this year.
"We didn't have a freeze last year or this year to kill off some of the population," he said. "There's also a lot of food and water to support them. ... This has been one of the biggest years for rats that I've seen in 19 years."
John Kaiser with Island Pest Control on Hilton Head, however, contends the marsh rat population -- albeit large -- has not changed. He and Tony Mills, education director at the LowCountry Institute, say people are just seeing more of them because high tides have driven them from their marsh homes into nearby human homes.
"The tides are covering their habitats and are ending up in people's yards and homes because there are few places for them to go," Mills said.
Indigo Run resident Jim Izant called Island Pest Control about a month ago after finding two rats in the attic of his home off Broad Creek.
"As soon as the weather started cooling off, they began looking for a warm place," Izant said. "They trapped both rodents, and since then, we haven't had any issues. It was no big deal. It's to be expected living by the water."
Some residents worry the rats have created a health hazard by carrying infectious diseases such as the hantavirus -- a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease that kills about a third of those infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Mark Plowden said residents should be cautious but not alarmed.
"I have found no report of hantavirus in S.C. in recent years," Plowden wrote in an email. "The situation in the area to which you refer is naturally occurring, and has done so repeatedly over the years."
Reported hantavirus cases are rare, though anyone who comes in contact with rodents that carry the virus -- including marsh rats -- is at risk, and rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary cause for exposure, according to the CDC's website. Three deaths were attributed to the virus this fall after 10 people were infected after visiting Yosemite National Park.
The rodents' urine has the virus, as does their droppings and saliva. It is primarily spread when people breathe in air contaminated with the virus. It is not spread from person to person.
People may also get the virus by touching items contaminated with rodent urine, droppings or saliva and then touching their nose or mouth, the CDC says. Infections transmitted by rodent bites are rare.
The agency recommends removal of food, water and items that provide shelter for rodents; covering gaps around fireplaces, walls, pipes, doors, vents, rafters, gables and eaves where rats and mice can get inside; setting traps; and cleaning up mouse and rat urine, droppings and nests with a disinfectant or mixture of bleach and water.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.