Gophers: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on January 17, 2023
5 min read

If you’ve seen the film Caddyshack, you probably remember Bill Murray’s battle against the troublesome gopher throughout the film. In real life, gophers can be a real pain and wreak havoc on your lawn. These common rodents can be quite cute, but not everyone wants them hanging around on their property. Here’s what you need to know about gophers to help you identify them and eliminate them.

Gophers, also called pocket gophers, can be any one of the 38 species that belong to the Geomyidae family. These outdoor rodents spend a lot of their time underground in search of food. They are experts at digging out tunnels and burrows, so much so that a single gopher can move 1 ton of soil to the surface each year.

What do gophers look like? Pocket gophers get their name from the fur-lined pockets in their cheeks that allow them to carry food. The pockets open externally on each side of the gopher’s mouth, all the way from the face to the shoulders, and empty inside-out. They have large front teeth and strong claws that are perfect for digging and excavating.

As there are several types of gophers, they can range in size from 5 to 14 inches long. They have short fur that often blends in with the local soil, so they can be several neutral colors, like gray, brown, or yellow. Gophers have small eyes and ears, with whiskers on their faces that help them move around in the dark. They also have a small tail that works as a sensory tool, allowing them to move just as fast backward as they can forward.

What do gophers eat? Gophers are different from moles in that their diet consists of a variety of plants and roots. Using their sense of smell to locate food, they tend to eat tubers and plants that they find while digging underground. Since they don’t hibernate in the winter, they collect food in their cheeks to save for later when they need it. Gophers may also graze on plants above ground near their burrows.

There are nearly 40 different species of gophers, but the most common one with the widest range is the pocket gopher. Many species of gophers are confused with moles because they live in the same habitats. However, moles have much smaller teeth and eyes that are so small they look almost like they’re not there. Gophers have long teeth that stick out of their mouths and eyes that are easily visible.

Pocket gophers are spread all across North and Central America. They live in southern Canada, throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and into parts of Colombia and Central America. They are so widespread that they live in all kinds of habitats, including:

  • Coastal areas
  • Tropical lowlands
  • Grasslands and plains
  • Meadows along mountainsides
  • Coniferous forests
  • Varying elevations

Why do gophers dig holes? Gophers are solitary creatures that live alone except when mating or when mothers are taking care of their babies. They dig tunnels and live in burrow systems that can be anywhere from 200 to 2,000 square feet. Since they prefer to live alone, they will fight other gophers who try to enter their tunnels. These systems have several chambers, and a gopher will run through all the tunnels every day or so to make sure everything is as it should be.

Are gophers nocturnal? Gophers are active both during the day and at night. They don’t have a hibernation period, so they keep up continuous activity throughout the seasons. You probably won’t spot them often, as they spend most of their time underground.

The biggest sign that you have gophers is by spotting their mounds in your yard. Their tunnel systems have chambers for storing food, nesting, and feces, and they are all connected. They like moist soil that allows them to dig down as far as six feet. At the surface of these tunnels, gophers create crescent-shaped mounds that have a plug on the side made from earth.

Are gophers dangerous? Gophers themselves aren’t dangerous, but their mounds can be a tripping hazard for children playing outside. Some control methods, like traps or toxic baits, can be harmful to children also, in addition to pets and wildlife on your property.

While gophers aren’t dangerous, they can cause a lot of damage. Gophers can ruin gardens and yards with their constant digging, and their mounds can cause problems when it comes to mowing and yard maintenance. Gophers can also chew through things like cables, irrigation lines, and sprinkler systems.

Anyone can get gophers, since they are a part of the natural ecosystem, mixing soil and depositing feces in it to enrich it. They bring minerals deep down in the dirt closer to the surface and help the soil better absorb water. However, gophers are attracted to areas with plants and roots that they can eat, so that’s why many gardeners and farmers view them as pests.

One common question people have about these rodents is “do gophers bite?” Gophers spend a lot of their time away from humans, so they generally don’t pose any kind of risk or threat. Even so, gophers will bite if they are threatened or feel like they are in danger. Their teeth are quite sharp, so the bite can be painful. You also risk getting bit if you step on a mound and the gopher is close by, feeling attacked.

If you get bitten by a gopher, wash the bite immediately with soap and water, and then apply a disinfectant to the area. You should seek out medical care immediately, as gophers carry rabies and other diseases that can be transferred through their saliva or other bodily fluids. Left untreated, rabies can be deadly.

There are many ways to get rid of gophers, the safest and easiest being trapping. You can buy gopher traps that you can set at the opening of their tunnels. This allows you to humanely remove and relocate the gopher. If you want to protect your plants and eliminate them as a food source, you can lay wire under the soil to keep gophers out.

Toxic or poison baits are another option, but this will kill the gopher. It’s also risky since they might affect the animals and plants living in the area. These baits are very effective but are known to harm animals like hawks, foxes, and coyotes. You want to avoid toxic baits if you have children that play in the area, as well.

Other methods to control gophers include:

  • Tunnel blasting
  • Using barn owls
  • Flood irrigation
  • Habitat modification
  • Exclusion
  • Letting natural predators find them