The Gambian Pouched Rat (also called Giant Pouched Rat or African Pouched Rat) comes from tropical Africa and is a naturally shy and docile animal. Adults can grow up to three feet long (including tail) and can weigh up to 2 kg. They have cheek pouches, like hamsters, which they use to carry food and other objects.
There are two species of Giant Pouched Rat, Cricetomys gambianus and Cricetomys emini, which are very similar to each other. The natural habitat of C gambianus is the wooded grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa whereas C emini inhabits the dense forests of Central Africa and the Ivory Coast.
C emini tend to be slimmer, sleeker and longer legged than C gambianus which by contrast are slightly stockier. The easiest way to tell them apart is by their markings. Both have a grey to rusty-brown back and a paler belly, the change from dark to pale is quite sharp in C emini and much more gradual in C gambianus.
Colour variations are beginning to be seen in captive bread populations. These variations include very subtle stripes and patches across the shoulders and haunches, small white markings on the head such as a dot between the eyes or a blaze and totally black variations have also occurred. Their most distinctive marking, which is common to both species, is their bi-coloured tail. About two thirds of the tail is dark while the final third very pale or white.
Giant Pouched Rats are not generally classed as domesticated animals. They require lots of love, attention, exercise, space, time and money if they are going to be kept as a successful pet. If you keep one of these animals the chances are that you may get bitten, they could destroy your furniture if let loose without being monitored and could keep you up at night if kept in your bedroom. They will also delight and amaze you and on balance they are worth it. If carefully socialised at an early age these animals can make wonderful, if challenging, pets. To become properly socialised daily handling needs to start from birth; we handle from day 2 and the cage is always located in our living room so that the babies are acclimatised to various sights and sounds. Young rats should be regularly introduced to new people and new experiences until they have overcome their natural fears. Once a bond between rat and owner has been established it needs to be reinforced every day with extended periods of contact and play. Rats which have not become socialised or have been neglected rapidly become fearful of human contact and can often become defensive and aggressive as with any animal. Being large rodents they are able to inflict very serious bites and a giant rat which can't be handled is the last thing any owner needs! Even a fully socialised rat can require careful handling and management. They are very intelligent, wilful and determined and are not easily distracted once they have decided to do something. One day they might fall asleep in your lap and the next they'll rip up your carpet and gnaw a hole through your floorboards if you are not watching them properly.
Very few cages available from pet shops are suitable for Pouched Rats. The cages are usually too small and often not nearly strong enough to keep Pouched Rats in. The few that are large enough tend to have wire mesh floors and shelves, which are not good for Pouched Rats' feet. One common solution is to make one large cage out of two multi-level ferret cages alternatively you can build your own. We have found that the best cages are either large parrot cages or indoor aviaries which you can mount hammocks, branches and various other parrot toys into for your rats amusement.
A pair of Pouched Rats needs a minimum floor area of 1 square metre. They like to run, climb and jump so the cage should have multiple levels for them to explore. The levels need to be about 30 cm apart and there should be different routes between the levels. A single pouched rat should be housed in a similar sized cage.
Self-built cages should not be considered a cheap option, as it's very important to use the highest quality materials. Not only for strength and durability but also because cheaper materials can be poisonous or have harmful coatings and finishes which the rats may ingest when they chew and gnaw the cage. Pine wood should be avoided at all cost as the sap contained within can be poisonous to pouched rats especially after it has come into contact with the rats urine and fumes are released. Galvanised mesh should also be avoided because this can cause zinc poisoning if gnawed.
Pouched Rats' cages should be lined with an adsorbent pet litter to a depth of about 2 cm. Good absorbency is important because Pouched Rats' urine is fairly strong and will stain flooring if allowed to seep through the cage. Not any type of substrate can be used; the best substrate type is paper based cat litter such as Bio-catolet litter or Eco-pet bed that is available from most large pet stores; avoid wood shavings or wood pellets especially pine at all costs.
Hay and straw can also be used but they are not as absorbent as the other options. Pouched Rats like to forage and dig in their litter and will spend hours moving it around the cage and creating huge piles of it against the sides of the cage. If the cage has mesh sides a lot of the litter will be thrown out through the mesh during the rats' excavations so it s best to have a cage with raised sides to avoid litter spilling onto the surrounding floor.
Pouched Rats are very intelligent and require lots of enrichment to keep them occupied. Their cage should be designed to provide them with many different routes between the levels. They should also be given a range of toys to play with. Wooden toys designed for parrots are ideal for pouched rats as are rope perches; the best rope is untreated natural hemp rope. The rat will eventually destroy anything you put in the cage so they will need to be replaced periodically. Some rats will bond to soft toys such as teddy bears and will carry them about and sleep with them.
Pouched Rats can be kept amused for a couple of hours if their food is hidden around the cage and amongst the litter. Their natural instinct is to forage, collect as much as they can carry in their cheek pouches and store it in piles around their nest which is why nests should be cleaned regularly to avoid rotting food especially if it is fresh.
We have found that large Java wood branches work the best within the rats environment as they withstand chewing and are smooth on the rats feet; they are also very natural looking and are therefore aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Pouched Rats are very active and they cannot be provided with enough stimulation caged up all day. They need to be let out to exercise, play and bond with their owner every day. Given space they will run and jump. Running up and down stairs is good exercise and they seem to enjoy repeatedly racing up and down. They enjoy climbing too so their play area should include chairs or other furniture for them to climb on. They can climb up brick walls although they are not so good at climbing down. They also enjoy climbing on people.
To maintain the bond the owner should play with the rat. Pouched Rats will play a bit like kittens. They will chase a ball, fight with the end of a rope and they also seem to enjoy having a cloth thrown over them and finding their way out from under it.
Like the domestic rat, Pouched Rats will eat a variety of foods. Their diet should include a lot of fruit and vegetables and very little cooked food. They hoard their food around their nest so they have access to it whenever they want. They will usually have a few bits stored in their cheek pouches too so they are never short of a snack when they feel like it. They do however get bored if the same types of food are always given. Owners should vary the diet over time continually swapping out some ingredients and then reintroducing the different foods later.
The sort of food Pouched Rats eat includes parrot mix, chipmunk mix, granary or Multi-grain bread, monkey nuts, walnuts (whole or in pieces), sunflower seeds, any green beans, calibrese, carrot, celery, courgette, cucumber, cooked peas, cooked potato, spinach, cooked sweet potato, apple, banana, grapes, mango, pear, tomato and pineapple. They especially love Avocados although they should be de-nutted and skinned as the skin is toxic if ingested. Avoid citrus fruits of all types.
There can be a fungus that grows and iscontained within certain types of nuts and fruits and is called Aspergillus fumigatus. It is a common fungus that grows on soil, plant debris and rotting vegetation in the autumn and winter and can affect humans also. It can attack the lungs of the subject along with other organs. There have been recorded incidents of sickness after feeding these to Pouched Rats and in some cases fatalities so be sure that your fresh foods come from a reputable source.
In the wild Pouched Rats also eat insects and some owners provide live Crickets and Mealworms for their rats, we have found that they also like Wax worms and Locusts which are easier to handle than Crickets.
In the wild Pouched Rats are known to live both in colonies and in solitary environments so it is quite possible to keep a single rat of either sex. They will be quite happy on their own. Keeping a male and female together is also possible providing the animals have been together from an early age and that the female isn't too dominant as cases have been known where males have been killed by a dominant female. A dominant female can seriously injure or even kill another rat. It is not possible to keep same sex pairs together (unless they are exceptionally tolerant litter mates) - they can and will in most cases fight to the death.
Breeding habits are not well understood and captive breeding is not very reliable. Some pairs breed regularly while others never produce any litters. First time mothers often have very small litters and sometimes only a single kitten/pup is born. Males have been known to eat the babies but some breeders leave the pair together without any problem.
Should you wish to have more than one rat it is advisable to purchase one from a reputable breeder rather than attempt to breed your own. Avoid commercial breeders if possible as you will most probably get a juvenile that has had little handling and may exhibit nervous and aggressive behaviour if attempts are made to handle them; this can also be the case from some private breeders advertising hand tame, its best to do your research and view the animal and its parents before committing to the purchase.
Even well socialised Pouched Rats may need to be handled with care. The owner should always remember that they are dealing with a wild animal. If a Pouched Rat is startled or feels threatened it may bite in self-defence as with most animals. Pouched Rats have a very powerful bite, which can inflict serious wounds on people and can kill other small animals.
Pouched Rats who are completely relaxed and friendly towards their owners can act aggressively towards people they don't know much like parrots behaviour with their owners.
They are predominantly nocturnal and don't appreciate being woken up during the day, however saying this many are found to be awake for short periods of time throughout the day to forage for food etc. If they are disturbed they can make loud grumbling and scolding noises. We have found that the best time to interact and appreciate them is in the late afternoon/evening when you have their full attention.
They are wilful and intelligent and once they have decided to do something or go somewhere they will be persistent, devious and cunning. They usually get their own way.
Pouched rats are susceptible to certain factors mainly affected by their environment. One of the main complaints from keepers is that they find their rat goes cold and is very lethargic; these animals have a very low fat content and are therefore susceptible to the cold. We have found a heat mat exterior to the enclosure but underneath the bed location works well to warm your animal. A half log or large house well bedded also helps to prevent heat loss; try to avoid placement of your enclosure in an extreme hot or cold location and attempt to keep the room at a steady temperature of around 20 - 24 degrees centigrade (room temperature).
Dry tails are another common complaint that tends to be more prevalent during the winter months when we have the central heating on which dries the air out. You can help to avoid dry tails by feeding oily fish and or cod liver oil supplements and you can also coat your rats tail with Vaseline. In the case of infection you can use Salon or seek an antibiotic cream from your vet.
Mites are less common in Pouched Rats if you use paper based bedding however to eradicate these should your rat become infected you can use Frontline spray.
Pouched Rat fur plucking is becoming more common, rats can become stressed for a variety of reasons and over groom themselves to the point where they remove the fur from their skin and leave it raw. Stress can be caused by poor diet, lack of stimulation, varying climate, too much or too little socialising etc.
Unusually Pouched Rats are best approached from behind. They like to have their rump scratched and stroked. They can be picked up by first stroking the rump and then getting a firm grip on the base of the tail with one hand. The other hand can then be slid underneath until all four feet are on the hand. The Rat can then be lifted up and laid along the owner's forearm. The rat will usually rest quite happily for a couple of minutes before it starts to struggle and wants to be let down.
Our own rat is what we like to call bomb proof and she can be handled at anytime and loves being picked up and fussed over, she has not one ounce of aggression in her which is what we intend all of our rats to be like.
A healthy Pouched Rat runs with its tail held high. The tail is held almost vertically so the white tip waves about like a flag. In an ill animal the tail is carried horizontally barely off the floor.
Pouched Rats can be potty trained - in fact they are naturally potty trained. If they are provided with a suitably sized dish partly filled with water they will use it as a toilet, plastic corner toilets work well also but may need regular replacement as they can get chewed. This makes keeping their cages clean very easy and if a potty is providing during their playtime while they are out they will reliable use it there too.