Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA)

A Cautionary Tail

Published May - 6 - 2009 Print This Post

miceBy Dawn Merritt

When Jennifer and Jeff Hennes and their three boys moved into their dream home in July 2006, they hoped for an idyllic life in the country. What they got resembled a horror movie instead. Behind the walls of their house lurked the remains of lots of little bodies – mouse bodies.

Caught in an Asthma Trap
“Benjamin was two and a half years old when we moved into the house,” Jennifer recalls. “A month later, his asthma kicked in.” In the past, Benjamin only experienced asthma symptoms when he caught a cold. This time, his asthma symptoms seemed to start for no reason – and wouldn’t go away. “He’d be sick for eight weeks, then healthy for a week, and then his asthma would be back again. He coughed so hard and so much that he would be vomiting and trying to catch his breath at the same time.”
The Hennes family and their doctors were puzzled, and they struggled to control Ben’s symptoms. “We couldn’t figure out why his asthma got so bad, why each episode lasted so long, and why we couldn’t get it under control. We thought it was some kind of allergies – maybe to the trees in the new yard – so we kept him on albuterol and Pulmicort Respules® and the doctor put him on Singulair®. Oral corticosteroids didn’t work – every time we tried them, Benjamin vomited. The worst episode I remember was when he coughed for 7 hours straight. At that point, the doctor told us to try doubling his nebulizer treatments – two doses of albuterol and two doses of Pulmicort. That gave Benjamin some relief, so we kept him on double doses after that.”

Mouse Tracks
Jennifer and her husband saw some signs of mice, but nothing to indicate the whole house had been infested. “When we first moved in, we heard a few mice in the attic and called an exterminator. After the exterminator came, we stopped hearing noises, so we thought the mouse problem was taken care of. We never saw live mice in the house. We also had the air ducts cleaned and the contractor found mouse skeletons in the air ducts – bodies that had been there longer than we had.” With that, they thought they had cleaned house.
But Benjamin wasn’t the only family member who was seriously ill. “We started renovating the house,” Jennifer says, “and I got sick every time we worked on it. I had pneumonia three times during our first year in the house. We had to get some friends to help with renovations because I just couldn’t do it, and then my husband got pneumonia!” When a piece of their ceiling fell down, Jennifer and her husband found piles of mouse droppings on it. Were these from the mice they eliminated from their attic, or was something else in there?
It wasn’t until their renovations took them to the downstairs “mother-in-law kitchen” in October 2007 – more than a year after they moved in – that they solved the mystery. “We pulled out the mother-in-law kitchen so we could put down new carpet. When we did, we found a very large mouse hole in the wall behind the cupboard, with steel wool shoved under the sheetrock by the hole and in holes going up the wall. At that point we kept removing baseboards and sheetrock, and the walls were filled, and I mean filled, with rotted mouse skeletons, decaying bodies, feces and urine. The smell was so bad, I couldn’t believe it. Throughout the house there were thousands of them! The worst area was in the interior walls surrounding my sons’ bedrooms. Ben’s headboard was right against the wall. He’d been breathing that in for a year and a half!” No one in the family had smelled the decay before they started taking down the walls.
What were all those mice doing inside the walls of the house? “There’s a deck along the entire back side of the house,” Jennifer says. “The previous owners had eight bird feeders out there. We think the mice came in from the woods, grabbed seeds and took them into the house to eat. When we looked closely, we found a few different holes where some of them got in.” Jennifer thinks the previous owners put out poison to kill the mice in the house and put steel mesh into the holes to prevent more mice from getting in. But they created an even larger problem by leaving mouse bodies and droppings behind the walls.

What Remains
“After we found this stuff in the walls downstairs, we moved the children upstairs into our room and my husband and I slept in the upstairs living room. Ben was a little less sick after that – his asthma episodes only lasted about 8 days each, but they were still happening at least once a month. When we showed pictures of what we found to the pulmonologist, he said Benjamin had to get out of there!” They didn’t have Benjamin tested specifically for mouse urine allergy, but it can be done at your allergist’s office using a simple skin test.

Tiny Clues
Although you may not know what’s behind every baseboard in your house, you can look for signs that indicate mouse activity. When they went shopping for a new home, Jennifer says she looked for droppings, which resemble little black or dark brown grains of rice; chewing on the walls; and holes around the bottom of the siding going into the house. “We learned that we needed to check the insulation in the attic plus look for traps and steel wool around pipes or hidden in other areas.” To make your house less attractive to passing mice, Jennifer recommends keeping bird feeders far away from the house. She also suggests you trap the mice instead of using poison to kill them. “That way you know the mouse is out of the house!”
Jennifer concedes that “every house will have a mouse or two. I think the house we bought was an extreme case. And not every seller is going to be honest with you. So if you have a child whose asthma has suddenly flared up, it’s worth checking to see if there is a mouse problem in your home. I sure wish I would have known to check sooner. Those 18 months were very hard on Benjamin. It was hard on all of us.”
Jennifer and her husband moved their family into a new home in May 2008 and are stuck right now with two mortgages. But regardless of the costs, Jennifer knows she made the right decision in getting her family out of the mouse-infested house. “Our family’s health had to come first.”

On the Hunt for Rodents
Most homeowners or landlords won’t confess to rodent infestations. But you can look for clues before you rent or buy. You may have to get a bit “up close and personal” when doing a walkthrough of a property – looking into cabinets, getting into crawl spaces – but that’s the only way to find what you’re looking for.

  • Telltale trail: If mice or rats are living in a house or apartment, you may find their droppings – little dark brown or black pellets that look like grains of rice – around food packages, in drawers or cupboards, under the sink and/or along baseboards. Rats also leave smudge marks along baseboards – they like to stick to the same path when they move around.
  • Entry points: Mice can squeeze through a hole the size of a nickel, and rats can squeeze through a hole the size of a half dollar! Check for gaps or holes in places like closets, along floorboards and in cabinets. Check outside the building around doors, the foundation, attic vents, crawl space vents and holes for electrical, plumbing, cable and gas lines. If you see a hole, check for steel wool used to keep rodents out – or in!
  • Stale smell: Most crawl spaces don’t smell fresh as a daisy, but your nose knows what stale air smells like versus animal urine and droppings.
  • Nasty nests: Look for piles of shredded paper, fabric or dried plant materials in places they don’t belong, like crawl spaces or the garage.
  • Teeth marks: Look for signs of gnawing and chewing on food packaging, cabinets, door frames or furniture.

If you suspect rodents – or need help with pest problems once you’re living in the house or apartment – visit the National Pest Management Association’s Web site at to find a pest management professional near you.