Gambian Pouched Rats as Pets

Characteristics of Gambian Rats

Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, Pretoria, Gauteng Province, South Africa
Anthony Bannister/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Scientific Name: Cricetomys gambianus (most common species found in captivity)

Common names: Gambian rats, African pouched rats, African giant rats, Gambian pouched rats, Gambian giant pouched rats.

Life span: up to 8 years

Size: Gambian pouched rats can reach a total length of 30 inches or more - half made up by the tail

Weight: usually about 3-4 pounds

Distribution: Africa (fairly wide distribution south of the Sahara desert down to northern South Africa)

Habits: Gambian pouched rats are nocturnal and omnivorous. They have very large cheek pouches in which they gather food to take back to their nests.

Due to a monkeypox outbreak in 2003, the US government has prohibited the import and sale/trade of Gambian pouched rats.

Temperament

Since Gambian pouched rats are relatively new to captivity they can be a bit more unpredictable than fancy rats and temperament can vary quite a bit between individuals. While they often can be good pets, there are some that remain skittish and/or become aggressive as they get older. However, with regular handling and training, most become quite friendly, gentle, and easy to handle. They are very intelligent and playful, and seem to have a tendency to lick their owners, like belly rubs, and collect shiny objects and other treasures.

As youngsters, Gambian pouched rats often go through a nippy stage in play much like other pet animals, and need gentle training to break the habit (a firm "no" or loud "ouch" and an end to playtime if it recurs).

Gambian rats will sometimes gently but firmly grasp you with their mouths (i.e. not a bite, just holding you) and try to push you away if they object to something. While some do like to be held and cuddled, others prefer not to be held (though still friendly).

Males are quite territorial and may be more aggressive than females, particularly around the time of sexual maturity, although they often calm down again given time and patience.

Unlike fancy rats, males of the species do not get along and shouldn't be housed together. If you have more than one male, wash your hands between handling them or the rats may react to the smell of the other rat on your hands with aggression.

Some owners are unprepared for the destructive abilities of Gambian pouched rats. Like other rodents, they need to chew, and with their large size and teeth, they can do a lot of damage quickly if they are not supervised closely when outside of the cage for playtime.

Feeding

Gambian pouched rats need seem to need more protein than their smaller rat counterparts. They are omnivores in the wild, eating everything from vegetation to insects and even some smaller mammals, although their diet is more vegetarian than carnivorous, and one reference states that in the wild they have a preference for palm fruit and root vegetables. They should be fed a mixture of food items from the following list, including a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.

  • Good quality rat grain mix and/or lab blocks
  • Commercial Omnivore diet (e.g. Mazuri)
  • Dog food
  • Monkey biscuits (occasionally)
  • Good variety of fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Dried fruits
  • Cooked lean meats and eggs (hard boiled or scrambled)
  • Insects (such as crickets, meal worms and wax worms)
  • Nuts, pumpkin seeds
  • Whole grain bread

Remember that Gambian pouched rats are hoarders, so they are liable to pack their cheek pouches full of food and move it from the food bowl to their nest. Be careful not to overfeed and monitor their cage for uneaten decaying food.

Some people recommend supplementing with a little bit of fish oil in their diet to curb dry skin problems. Keeping the humidity up in the room you keep your rat in may help too.

Never feed chocolate, and avoid fried food, salty food, candy or junk food.

Housing

Providing a good, sturdy, large cage can be a bit of a challenge for Gambian pouched rats. Also keep in mind that even with a large cage they will need time out of the cage daily for exercise as well as socialization. These rats can chew very destructively so close supervision is a must when they are out of the cage.

Basic cage requirements:

  • As large as possible - a multi-level cage is best for providing room to move (e.g. multilevel ferret or chinchilla cage)
  • No wire floors or shelves as this will hurt their feet
  • An all metal cage is best as Gambian rats can quickly chew through or destroy plastic or wood.
  • A deep base is best, or you can add a urine shield (strip of metal or plastic around the outside of the lower part of the cage). This helps keep the bedding in and prevents feces from falling out since Gambian pouched rats tend to back into a corner to defecate.
  • Powder coated metal (or stainless steel) cage. Zinc can be ingested if chewing on galvanized cages, and their urine will discolor galvanized wire quickly.
  • Aspen wood shaving or an aspen, paper, or pulp-based bedding material in the bottom of the cage (no cedar or pine)
  • Provide lots of plain white (no dyes or perfumes) paper towels or facial tissue for nesting material.
  • Clean the cage thoroughly weekly. Gambian pouched rats tend to back into a corner to defecate and urinate, which makes spot cleaning the cage easy in between major cleanings.
  • Gambian rats could potentially be litter training by providing a corner litter box.

Toys

All rats love to chew and Gambian pouched rats are no exception, and since they are larger they can chew through items very quickly. A good variety of wood chew toys should be offered to keep them occupied -- large parrot toys often work well. Wooden toys made out of arbutus or manzanita wood are a little tougher so provide extra chewing time. Nylabones (in the dog section) also provide good chewing opportunities. Cotton rope toys are also a good option. Plastic toys will not last long and are a health hazard if chewed off pieces are ingested by Gambian pouched rats. An exercise wheel is also an excellent idea, but the trick is finding one. A wheel should be metal, solid surface and large ( 15 inch minimum, 17-inch diameter is better).