Muskrat vs Beaver: 6 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Updated: September 20, 2023
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Beavers and muskrats look strikingly similar and are easily confused due to their stout and furry brown bodies and love of water.  But just how alike are they?  They’re both rodents so what’s the difference you might wonder?  The truth is they are actually two completely different species and each is unique in their own right.

For a start, there is a vast difference in their size and they have completely different tails.  Plus, one builds dams and one doesn’t, and one is extremely important to the ecosystem.  But that’s not all as we’ll dive into all of their differences and discover exactly how to spot the differences identifying the muskrat vs beaver!

Comparing Muskrat vs Beaver

Muskrats and beavers are often confused for one another, especially as they’re both rodents.  However, there are a few ways that they are different, although some are easier to spot than others.

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Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences between muskrat vs beaver.

MuskratBeaver
Size1.3 to 4.4 pounds24 to 66 pounds
HabitatMarshes, swamps, and wetlandPonds, streams, lakes, and rivers
SpeciesOne one speciesNorth American beaver
Eurasian beaver
TailLong and thin (half of body length)Wide, flat, and scaly (paddle-shaped)
DietOmnivoreHerbivore
Number of littersUp to 4 litters per yearOnly 1 litter per year
Lifespan3 to 4 years10 to 15 years

The 6 Key Differences Between Muskrats and Beavers

A rodent species, a large beaver walking over the beaver dam.

A rodent species, a large beaver walking over the beaver dam.

©Dan-Pepper/Shutterstock.com

Muskrat vs Beaver: Habitat

Muskrats and beavers are both semi-aquatic animals and must be near water to survive, but their habitats are slightly different.  Muskrats prefer marshes, swamps, and wetlands and live in burrows near the water.  They are native to Canada, the US, and northern Mexico, and are an invasive species in Europe.

Beavers prefer freshwater ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers and build dams across waterbodies.  They then build their home, known as a lodge, out of sticks, grass, and mud inside the dam that they have created.  North American beavers are widespread across Canada, North America, and northern Mexico.  They have been introduced to Finland and then spread to Russia.  Eurasian beavers are widespread across Europe and have been reintroduced to the UK.

Muskrat vs Beaver: Dam Building

Unlike muskrats, only beavers build dams across bodies of water.  They are workaholics and spend most of their time either building dams or repairing them.  Beavers build dams to deepen the water course so that they have more protection against predators such as foxes, coyotes, bears, and wolves.  They build their dams by gnawing through trees with their incredibly tough and sharp incisors and then using the branches to build the dam.  Beavers incisors are orange colored due to the presence of iron compounds which make their teeth so tough.  

Muskrats can’t build dams because they simply don’t have tough enough teeth. But muskrats do have the ability to alter the aquatic environments they live in. By consuming aquatic plants, they actually help to clear waterways that would otherwise be blocked. This benefits other animals like water fowl and semi-aquatic animals by providing clear areas for them to swim.

Muskrat vs Beaver: Size

One of the main differences between muskrat vs beaver is in size. Beavers are much larger and heavier than muskrats. Beavers can weigh up to 66 pounds and have a maximum length of around 40 inches. Muskrats only weigh around 4 pounds and reach 28 inches, with half of that length being their tail.

Muskrat in sunset light. Autumn season.

Muskrat in sunset light. Autumn season.

©Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock.com

Muskrat vs Beaver: Tail

One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a muskrat and a beaver is by looking at their tails. Beavers have an extremely wide and flat tail which is shaped like a paddle and covered in scales.  They often use their tail as a rudder when swimming and store fat in it during the winter.  Muskrats have a very long and skinny tail, more like that of a traditional rodent.

Muskrat vs Beaver: Diet

Muskrats are omnivores and eat aquatic plants – such as cattails, water lilies, rushes, and pondweed.  They also eat small fish, frogs, snails, clams, and mussels.  Beavers are strictly herbivores and eat only aquatic plants, bark, leaves, and twigs.

Muskrat vs Beaver: Appearance when Swimming

Both beavers and muskrats are excellent swimmers and can often be spotted in the water.  However, there is a big difference in how they appear when they are swimming.  When beavers are swimming the only part of them that is visible is their head, whereas when muskrats are in the water their entire body can be seen.

What Preys on Muskrats vs Beavers?

Mountain lion standing on thick tree branch

Large apex predators like cougars can target both beavers and muskrats for a meal if the opportunity arises.

©Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com

We’ve looked at what each of these semi-aquatic animals eats. But what animals pose a threat to their survival? Are there any predators that these animals have in common?

Animals that prey on beavers include:

  • Wolves
  • Foxes
  • Coyotes
  • Bears
  • Cougars
  • Lynxes
  • Wolverines
  • Great-horned Owls
  • Otters
  • Alligators

Animals that prey on muskrats:

  • Coyotes
  • Raccoons
  • Alligators
  • Bobcats
  • Cougars
  • Foxes
  • Bears
  • Lynxes
  • Wolverines
  • Birds of Prey (eagles, hawks, owls)
  • Cottonmouths and other Water Snakes
  • Minks
  • River Otters

Due to their size, muskrats have more predators, specifically, threats from water snakes like the cottonmouth, minks, raccoons, and birds of prey.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©


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About the Author

Hannah is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on reptiles, marine life, mammals, and geography. Hannah has been writing and researching animals for four years alongside running her family farm. A resident of the UK, Hannah loves riding horses and creating short stories.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are muskrats and beavers both rodents?

Yes, they are both rodents.  Beavers and the second largest rodent after the capybaras and North American and Eurasian beavers are the only member of the Castoridae family.  However, muskrats are members of the Cricetidae family which is the second largest family of mammals and includes rats, mice, voles, and lemmings.

Are muskrats rats?

No, although they are rodents and from the same family group as rats, muskrats are not actually rats.  They are often mistaken for rats because of the similarities in their appearance and because of their name.

Are beavers and muskrats territorial?

Beavers are not territorial and live peacefully with other members of their group.  However, muskrats are territorial and often become extremely aggressive towards other members of their group.

Do muskrats and beavers have webbed feet?

Beavers have digitised front feet and fully webbed hind feet but muskrats don’t.  Their front feet are not webbed at all, but their back feet are only partially webbed.

Do beavers produce a water-repellent oil?

Yes, beavers produce a water-repellent oil called castoreum that they use to keep their fur waterproof.  The have a split claw called a grooming claw that they use to regularly groom the castoreum into their coat with.  Muskrats have a double layered coat which consists of a thick layer of fur underneath to keep them warm and a layer of long guard hairs on the top which are water-resistant.

Why are beavers so important?

Beavers are considered to be an extremely important animal as they change the flow of water courses and create new wetland environments which benefit other animals such as otters, water voles, newts, fish, and many more.

Do muskrats produce a smell?

Yes, as their name suggests, muskrats produce a musky smell from their scent glands.  They produce this smell as a way of marking their territory.

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