Cotton Rats

Identification Biology | Damage ID | Management | Handling

Cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus). Photo by Alan Schmierer via Wikimedia Commons.


The hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus) is a moderately large, robust rodent with a scaly, sparsely haired tail that is shorter than the combined head and body. This rodent has a high “Roman” nose and color similar to that of a javelina, resulting in the name “javelina rat” in many areas.

Legal Status

Cotton rats are not protected in most states; some states classify them as nongame mammals. They may be taken if causing damage. Check local and state laws before beginning control measures.

Physical Description

Cotton rats have relatively large eyes. The ears are large but almost hidden in the fur. They have four toes and a small thumb on their front feet and five toes on each hind foot. The cotton rat has very small internal cheek pouches. Distinguishing characteristics are the rough grizzled appearance of the blackish or grayish fur and the rather stiff black guard hairs.

The total length averages 10 inches (25 cm) including the tail length of 4 inches (10 cm). The cotton rat may be distinguished from the Norway rat by its smaller size, shorter tail, and longer grizzled fur. Evidence of cotton rat presence are stem and grass cuttings 2 or 3 inches (5 or 8 cm) in length piled at various locations along runways, which are 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 cm) wide. Pale greenish or yellow drop-pings, about 3/8 inch (9 mm) in length and 3/16 inch (5 mm) in diameter, may also be present along the run-ways.

Species Range

The hispid cotton rat occurs over most of the southern United States, from the southeastern tip of California, southern Arizona and New Mexico, north to eastern Colorado, eastward through the southern portions of Kansas and Missouri, through Tennessee and North Carolina, and southward along the Atlantic coast through Florida, the Gulf states, and up the Rio Grande Valley.

Range of the cotton rat in
North America. Image by PCWD.

Two other species of cotton rat, the least cotton rat (S. minimus) and the yellownose cotton rat (S. ochrognathus), occur only in small areas of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. They are very similar to the hispid cotton rat.


Information on this species is based on the chapter in Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage (Hygnstrom, Larson, Timm, ed. 1994), written by Donald W. Hawthorne (USDA-APHIS Animal Damage Control).