Poor Pita. For months the 4-year-old Lhasa apso was blamed for everything: holes under the fence, gnawed furniture outside and noise in the night.
Then one day, Pita's owner, Nancy Driscoll, came face to face with the real culprit.
"We've killed a few already," Ms. Driscoll said. "It gives me chills to think about it. And ever since I found out we have rats, I'm afraid to let the dog outside."
Ms. Driscoll attributes the rats to a construction site a couple blocks away from her Seabreeze Drive home.
As she looks back, the signs of a rat invasion showed up about the same time construction workers cleared land for The Piers shopping center at U.S. 19 and Scenic Drive.
"I feel like a prisoner in my own home," Ms. Driscoll said. "I'm not going out there now. You can hear them chewing at night. They make a lot of racket."
Ms. Driscoll's theory about the displaced rats is probably a good one. Though many neighbors say they have not noticed anything, others have seen mice and rats and have seen evidence of a problem.
Plus, according to health officials and exterminators, construction projects generally send the rodents scurrying for new shelter.
"I'm quite sure (The Piers) stirred up a lot," said Douglas Lee of Terminix International Termite and Pest Control. "Anytime we get a lot of disturbance like that, it increases the number of phone calls we get into the office."
On Westport Drive, Angela Zaffuto said she has not seen any mice or rats, but her neighbors caught a mouse this week.
"They said it was kind of cute," she said. "I don't care how cute it is, I don't want them around."
Ms. Driscoll's husband, Rick, who no longer lives in the Westport neighborhood, has helped rid her home of rats.
Three bags of poison later, he's buried three rats and tossed one in the trash.
And Tuesday morning, Ms. Driscoll found another dead rat on her patio.
"That's the fifth one," she said.
The rats have chewed through the insulation in the Driscolls' $3,500 hot tub, causing half of the water to leak out. They've toppled plants. They've chewed through a wooden record cabinet and even gnawed on some of the concrete blocks of her home.
"Poor dog," she said. "She was getting all this grief for this."
Driscoll called the county, but there's not much officials can do.
"They say, "Live with it, it's Florida,'
" Driscoll said. "Well, you live with roaches and bugs and sometimes snakes. You say, "That's tropical living.' But rats? I don't think so."
The Pasco County Health Department will supply bait and traps at a reduced rate for people who have a rat problem because of construction, spokeswoman Joan Spainhower said.
In isolated problems of rat infestation, officials will inspect a home and provide information for the best ways to control rats, she said.
However, there is no federal, state or county money to provide for rat control, except in already designated problem areas, Ms. Spainhower said.
"But what if a child gets bit by a rat or picks up some kind of disease?" Driscoll said. "Who's responsible then?"
The thought of having rats is so repulsive, Ms. Driscoll said, that she's surprised if anyone in the neighborhood admits it.
"You don't really want to talk to people about having a rat problem," she said. "It's not really socially acceptable."
For bait and trap information, call the Health Department at 868-7788.