Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey




Background Information

The muskrat is located in most of the United States and Canada. It is one of the most trapped animals. About 10 million fur pelts are taken each year. Their waterproof fur is sold for clothing. Their name comes from a musk gland that gives off a musk smell. This liquid is used to make perfume. Muskrat meat was once a popular food.

Physical Features

Muskrats are not rats; however, they are a member of the rodent family. Muskrats look like small beavers, or overgrown rats. They are about 12 inches in length. They have tails as long as their bodies. These tails are scaly and black. Muskrats use their tails and partly webbed feet to swim and steer in the water.

The rest of their body is fur covered. Like many rodents, they have two front teeth that are used for gnawing. Muskrats can weigh between 1 to 4 pounds.

Life Cycle

Mature muskrats mate in the water. After about 1 month, the female produces a litter of 5 to 6 babies in her nest. The young are born hairless and helpless in a nest. Within 2 weeks, the babies can dive and swim. After 1 month, the female forces the young from the nest with her sharp teeth. Muskrats live for about three years in the wild (if they are not trapped or eaten by predators).


Muskrats live in marshy and swampy areas near slow-moving streams. When danger is near, muskrats can stay under water for more than 10 minutes.

They build nests on tops of roots and mud. They paste together roots and twigs with mud. A nest can be as wide as 6 feet. They chew a hole inside the nest and enter it from underneath the water.

Muskrats also burrow into the steep banks of streams. They build a tunnel system down under the water line. In winter, these tunnels are below the freezing line of water.


They are most active in the early morning and early evening hours. Muskrats are omnivores. They feed on leaves, stems, berries, lily pads, and other green plants. Muskrats also will eat frogs, small fish, and crayfish.


  © Dr. Randall Pellow, 2005