Rodents

Hantavirus

A deermouse.  ( via Wikipedia)

A deermouse.  (via Wikipedia)

Five years ago, I spent a few days hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family.  A few days after we left, the National Park Service put out a notice of an outbreak of Hantavirus – a disease transmitted by air and hosted by mice.  This was the first time I had ever heard of this virus with nearly a 40% fatality rate.

The relevance of this virus to piano tuners and piano owners is that old pianos often serve a second purpose as mouse hotels.  Even if you haven't seen any mice around your house, if you haven't physically opened up your piano in the past few years and checked for mice nests or droppings, there is more than a slim chance that mice live or have lived in your piano.  I would say that over 25% of upright pianos that I open up show some sign of mouse inhabitation.

There is a lot of concern about Hantavirus in the piano technician community (rightly so), but I find that there is also a lot of misinformation. I'd like to try to clear things up a bit here.

First of all, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best place to get good, non-sensationalized information about this issue. Hobbyist and even professional web forums are full of hyperbole and misinformation.

Hantavirus was first recognized in 1993 in Northwest New Mexico. Since it's discovery, more than 96% of reported cases have occurred west of the Mississippi River.

Hantavirus is spread through rodent feces and urine. It is kicked up into the air when mouse droppings are disturbed and causes infection when breathed in by humans. Hantavirus doesn't seem to live long once exposed to air or sunlight. For humans to become infected, there must be an active mouse infestation. Droppings that are more than several days old are unlikely to harbor the virus.

There have been only two cases of Hantavirus with known exposure in Louisiana.

The virus is carried by several species of rodent: the deer mouse, cotton rat, rice rat, and white-footed mouse. All of these usually live in rural areas, but the deer mouse and cotton rat can sometimes be found in cities under certain conditions. House mice rarely, if ever, carry the virus. Barns, sheds, and other unattached structures in rural areas are the most common places to find the virus, and therefore require the most caution when cleaning or working in.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Though there is no anti-viral treatment for Hantavirus, early detection does increase the likelihood of survival. Early symptoms are similar to the flu (fever, fatigue, muscle ache, upset stomach). These then progress into serious respiratory problems.

If you are showing these symptoms, be sure to mention any potential rodent exposure to the diagnosing physician.

Hantavirus is not contagious and cannot be spread by sneezing, coughing, kissing, or other bodily contact.

The best way to prevent Hantavirus infection is to eliminate the presence of rodents in and around your home. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety gives these tips:

  • Storing food (including pet food), water and garbage in heavy plastic or metal containers with tight fitting lids.

  • Sealing any holes in structures where mice may enter.

  • Cutting back thick brush and keep grass short. Keep woodpiles away from the building.

  • Using rubber or plastic gloves when cleaning up signs of rodents, handling dead rodents, or other materials.  When finished, clean gloves with soapy water before taking them off. Wash hands with soapy water (again) after removing the gloves.

  • Setting traps when necessary.  Put rodents in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and dispose.

 

Mouse nests and droppings can be soaked with a 1:10 solution of bleach & water. The nest material should be sealed in plastic and disposed of. All reusable gloves, respirators, or other protective gear should be wiped down with the bleach solution as well.

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure.  (via cdc.gov)

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure. (via cdc.gov)


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Cleaning Out an Upright

If you own an old upright piano, every few years, you ought to open up the base of the piano and take a look. Often times you will find rodent nests, broken pieces of the piano action, decades worth of dust and old pencils, or anything else you can imagine. This process only takes a few minutes and can give great insight about any ailments that may be affecting your piano.

upright-piano-base.jpg

I was recently called out to diagnose an old spinet that had survived Hurricane Katrina. The water had risen a few inches above the floor of the house and the water line could still be clearly seen at the lower end of the cast iron plate inside the piano. The reason I was called in was because, in addition to the piano being out of tune, many of the keys were either sticking or just moving very roughly. The first thing I did when arriving at the owner's home was to remove the lower panel of the piano (looking for a clue as to the piano's history). I saw the water line on the plate, but I also saw what looked like small piles of cat food along the bottom board inside of the piano. To me, this immediately implied a past or present rodent infestation. At some point, these critters had made this piano their home, found an open bag of cat food, and had stashed some of it for later. This definitely gave me an inkling as to what was going on with the keyboard. There is usually large enough gaps in the keyframe under the keys for mice to squeeze through and move around underneath the keyboard. However, this inkling didn't fully prepare me for what was to come.

key-removed.jpg

After my quick check inside the lower cavity of the piano, I decided to pull a few keys out of the piano to see if there was anything underneath that could be jamming them, as well as looking at the condition of the bushings inside the keys that usually allow it to move smoothly up and down. After removing the top panel and fallboard, I lifted a few keys off the keyframe. What I found was that during the storm the mice that had been storing their food in the bottom of the piano needed to look for higher ground and, finding the cavity underneath the keys, had completely packed it with partially chewed cat food. The entire length of the keyframe had served as their emergency food storage. The food was so tightly packed and stuck together that it had to be chiseled out with a spoon and screwdriver.

The piano's owner and I spent a little over an hour removing all of the keys (and numbering them to ensure they were replaced in the proper order), scraping, scooping, brushing, and vacuuming all of the cat food out of the keybed cavities, and replacing the keys. Once the keys were back in, I was able to play all the way up and down the keyboard with only two keys showing any signs of sluggishness. These were quickly remedied by slightly easing (compressing) the balance rail bushings inside the offending keys.

piano-cat-food.jpg

This piano provides a great lesson about being vigilant about maintaning your piano. Open up the lid and the bottom panel every once in a while and take a look inside. If you see broken wooden parts, missing screws, or piles of small debris formed by rodents, you should take action quickly to prevent any small problems from becoming a serious issue that will prevent your piano from having to undergo expensive repairs. If you find that there are rodents moving in and out of your piano, be careful when cleaning up the mess they leave behind. Rodent feces can contain harmful viruses, so you should wear a dust mask and gloves. If you think they have caused damage to your piano, call your local piano technician to perform repairs and advise you on how to prevent similar damage in the future.


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