Care Guide

Care Guide Index

Introduction to Species
Housing
Substrates
Internal Environment
Stimulation
Dietary Needs
Husbandry Techniques
Handling and Temperament
Special Requirements
Golden Keeper Tips

Introduction to Species

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 four species of Giant Pouched Rat:

  • Southern giant pouched rat, Cricetomys ansorgei
  • Gambian pouched rat, Cricetomys gambianus
  • Emin’s pouched rat, Cricetomys emini
  • Kivu giant pouched rat, Cricetomys kivuensis

While the Cricetomys ansorgei is the species used by APOPO and for the HeroRATs, Cricetomys gambianus and Cricetomys emini, are the two species found in the pet trade although the C gambianus has become the more commonly kept one of the two species and the C emini becoming harder to find.

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. C emini has a rusty-brown back with a sharp change to a white belly, whereas the C gambianus is predominantly grey in color in the up portion of its body with a much more gradual change to a white under belly.
Colour variations are beginning to be seen in captive bred 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.

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Housing

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.
Do not be tempted to give your pouched rat too much of your own living space to use at its own freewill. Pouched rats can become very territorial and can quickly decide to claim your living room as their own and keepers have found themselves, if not members of their family, coming under attack when trying to enter a room their pouched rat has claimed as its own territory.

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Substrates

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.
Due to how clean pouched rats can be, some keepers have been known to cover the bases of their cages with fleese blankets instead of substrate then just taking them out and changing them between weekly washes of the blankets. Pouched rats will also enjoy making cozy nests for themselves with these blankets and what sometimes looks neat and tidy can become a messy bundle in no time.

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Internal environment

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.

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Stimulation

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.
When out it is best not to leave them on their own for too long as the pouched rats natural curiousity can get them into quite a bit of bother and on occasion can chew their way into your favorite couch or plasterboard walls or worse can go missing. If in the event this does happen then leave their cage with easy access as due to their territorial behavior they invariably will return to their own cage and bed when they are ready to.

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Dietary Needs

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,rat 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 strawberries. 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 is contained 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.

Pouched rats do enjoy a higher protein diet than standard fancy rats and will quite happily enjoy cooked chicken (including the bones) if offered, as well as eggs, either scrambled or hard boiled.
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.
Foods to be avoided include any dairy foods, e.g. milk, cream, cheese, yogurts, etc. Foods with a high salt or fat content and no fish especially oily fish, for example tuna. Our general rule of thumb is if they would not naturally find it in their natural environment then don’t feed it.

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Husbandry Techniques

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. If you decide to keep male and female together then be prepared to neuter your male to avoid any unwanted litters.

It used to be said that it was not possible to keep same sex pairs together (unless they are exceptionally tolerant litter mates) as they would they in most cases fight to the death, particularly if you kept males together. In the last 10 years of people keeping pouched rats much has been learnt, particularly in this area of their care. The biggest difference is that you can indeed keep males together in small groups, the most tried to date has been a group of 4 however cage space has to be a considerable amount  as opposed to the 2 level split critter cages that most keepers use, so as to allow them to have their own space if needed. It is important to remember at this point that they are observed to be predominantly solitary creatures in the wild so cage space is essential if keeping bigger groups.

Females can also be kept with a group of neutered males however we only recommend one female if done from a young age. we have learnt in recent years that the more difficult of the sexes to keep in pairs or groups is actually the females. If not planning to keep with a male it is advised to actually keep the females solitary due to the females natural hierarchical behaviours. The females are dominant in this species and only the matriarch female will breed naturally. Keepers who have tried witnessed the dominant female in a female pairing attack the other once both females have reached sexual maturity. In captivity with no way to escape this has resulted in the less dominant female loosing her life. It is also not advised to keep 2 females with one male, in the past this has also resulted in the females causing the males untimely 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, litter size can be anywhere from 1 to 6 babies although average 4 per litter. Males can be left with the babies and will help in the nest with keeping the babies safe and warm while mum leaves the nest. However most breeders will remove the male before the birth so as to avoid any unplanned litters to soon after. It is best to remove him at least a week before otherwise removing him after can result in causing the female to become stressed. Any pups born with health issues or dead on arrival, will normally be eaten by the female.

An interesting note to share is that if you have a good relationship/bond with your female she will happily share her babies with you. There are some breeders who have experienced their females taking their hands in their mouths, much like when carrying a pup, and taking it to the nest with her babies.

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.

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Handling and temperament

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 regardless whether they have been bred in captivity or not. 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 a parrots behaviour with their owners. Even the slightest scent on you of someone else in your family can result in a very rude telling off from your pouched rat.

Both sexes can be temperamental in behavior, how one behaves for one owner may not necessarily be how another behaves for their owner. Speak to any keeper who has kept either sex and they all will have a preference. Females are a lot more active and on the go and not altogether known for enjoying periods of time cuddled up in your arms, they much prefer to be off exploring their surroundings. However in terms of how their temperaments change as they reach sexual maturity the females are probably better for first time owners as they tend not to show the aggressive tendencies once reaching that milestone. Males on the other hand do have a change in temperament once the testosterone kicks in somewhere between 4-6 months old. Males that were once friendly and loving towards their owner soon start to exhibit behaviors like bitting and becoming defensive of their cage or surroundings, especially if given more space to free roam at their own freewill. If done in the early stages of these behaviours appearing, neutering has proved very successful in calming these behaviours and the male becoming very loving and enjoying nothing more than to snuggle up in your arms for a lazy evening with you. This may not happen straight away with owners reporting anywhere from 6 weeks to a few months before they boy returns to his normal loving self. Please note however this may not work on all males especially if they are older males, or some behaviours may improve while some do not disappear completely.

Be cautious keeping your pouched rats around other family pets. Pouched rats are not afraid of much and will happily stand up for themselves against a dog or a cat that shares the home around them, an inquisitive nose or paw too close to the cage bars is likely to result in it getting scratched if not bitten. Saying this however introduced at an early age some keepers have also seen their pouched rat build an unbreakable friendship with the family dog, while others have had success having on or 2 fancy rats co-habit with their pouched rat. This kind of co-habiting is not something we at UKpouchies would advise and especially not recommend with female pouched rats. Any decision to do this is at the rat owners own risk to their fancy.

Pouched rats 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. We have found that the best time to interact and appreciate them is in the late afternoon/evening when you have their full attention. If they are disturbed they can make loud grumbling and scolding noises, in comparison when they are happy they can make whistling noises and are known to make a purring sound on receiving attention from that one human that they love most.
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.

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Special requirements

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 body fat content and are therefore susceptible to the cold. We have found a heat mat stuck to the exterior of the enclosure somewhere 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. Baby or young pouched rats are more susceptible to this condition while the tail is still growing. You can help to avoid dry tails by applying either olive oil, coconut oil or you can also coat your rats tail with Vaseline, as a preventative measure. In the case of infection you can use Savlon or seek an antibiotic cream from your vet. One vet prescribed cream we have had success with is Bactroban, resulting in many a tail being saved. If in the event this condition progresses the tail dry’s out to the point the skin tightens to form rings around the tail which eventually causes the pouched rat to loose a portion of its tail. if a small enough portion it may fall off naturally otherwise surgical intervention maybe required to remove the effected part of the tail. Although used primarily for balance the pouched rat can cope well without the full length of its tail or the tail itself.

Mites are less common in Pouched Rats than in fancy rats. However to eradicate these should your rat become infected with mites you should use a paper based litter or epoch bed and you can use Frontline spray to treat your pouched rat.

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. Pouched rats who have lived as a pair can also fur pluck or self harm in other ways when pining for a lost cage mate.

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Golden keeper tips

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 to explore.

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. So this is a good indicator that something may be wrong with your pouched rat. Little is still known about common health issues in pouched rats and they can be quite adept at hiding minor ailments.

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 reliably use it there too.

Male pouched rats scent mark by rubbing scent glands located on the sides of their faces across objects. If you own a male pouched rat then you can expect to find grease marks on your matt painted walls or furniture of the room they are allowed to free roam in.

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