African Giant Pouched Rats
Sara, African Giant Pouched Rat
You may have heard rumors about the African Giant Pouched rat, or maybe you've seen a picture and thought how great it would be to have one of these majestic giants as a pet. Well, before you base your decision to obtain an African rat on what you already know about rats as pets, read on and learn about the lifetime commitment you are about to make - their lifetime, not yours.
The lifespan of the African Giant Pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) can be more than seven years in captivity. That is quite a difference from the two to three year lifespan of our domesticated pet rats and, in itself, demands a much closer look at the responsibility aspects of keeping one as a pet. Add to that the fact that they are approximately 28 inches from nose to tail tip with an average weight of 3-1/2 to 4 pounds of solid muscle, and you may be getting into more than you bargained for.
Although these rats have many of the same mannerisms as our domesticated rattus norvegicus pets, the African Giant Pouched rat is not a domesticated animal. It is a captive-bred exotic that still displays many of its wild traits, no matter how gentle or delightful some may be, and should always be approached with caution. We have not been able to determine why some of these rats can be so wonderful, friendly, and seemingly harmless, while others start out this way and later become aggressive. Of course, as a male matures, testosterone may be blamed for some that become aggressive (therefore, neutering may help), but I believe the reason may also lie in the amount of attention and freedom the rat is given.
First of all, the male of this species tends to be extremely territorial, so much so that two males may fight to the death. I believe that extending the males territory too far outside of his cage alters his perception of how much protecting he must do. By this, I mean giving him too much space during playtime. At no time, while a male is in his territory, should you put your fingers in front of his face. Not all will bite, but many will, and the bite of an African rat is extremely painful. Part of the African rats normal behavior during playtime is to use their teeth anyway, so unless the rat is actually drawing blood, it may not be biting aggressively.
Too much freedom may also cause them to exhibit more of their wild natural behavior. I find that by confining my female to the bed at playtime, we are able to interact much more than if I were to allow her on the floor. She is still able to hop and pop and run and play, but I am the center of her attention, rather than her reverting to a more wild state having to check out every nook and cranny in the room. I then become her friend rather than her enemy, as she probably sees it, when being grabbed to be put back in the cage. Of course, she will get down to the floor to explore if I leave the bed for any reason, and when that happens, I immediately put her back in the cage indicating to her that playtime does not extend to the floor and is now over.
The amount of attention given to a wild animal is always going to be a big factor in how tame the animal will become. This is even true in domesticated animals. I strongly believe that daily attention must be given to these rats for them to become tame. As with any animal, it is important not to show fear and to let the rat know you will not tolerate certain behaviors. I don't mean that you should strike the animal or hurt it in any way, ever, but you must show them that you are in control. A firm hold and a loud and forceful NO has worked for me with many situations, but these rats are very headstrong and will test you every chance they get.
All rats are destructive. We know that from experience and keeping domesticated rats, and sometimes even from having wild ones get into our homes, but you haven't seen rat destruction happen so quickly until you've let an African rat loose in your home unsupervised! I made this mistake shortly after gaining the trust of the two we originally rescued from being killed in a film in Hollywood. The holes chewed at the back of a chest of drawers that took years for my little rats to make were enlarged in just a few hours to accommodate the much larger stature of an African rat. Once underneath the chest of drawers, the carpet and carpet padding were completely ripped up to be used as bedding. While trying to gain access to the closet, the carpet at the doors edge was ripped up in a matter of minutes. I learned my lesson quickly and NEVER allow them to play unsupervised any longer.
Despite the fact that these rats can be very destructive and some can be aggressive, the non-aggressive ones DO make delightful pets. They are extremely playful and fun to watch as they bounce here and there, throw their heads back in excitement, and rolling over to have their belly scratched. They have a tendency to like licking hands which is also very endearing and the chortling and chirping noises they make certainly do bring a smile to your face, although, the chortling and chirping can turn to screaming at each other in the night when two rats are housed together.
I have not read or seen any references as to how African rats mark their territory, but the behavior I have witnessed is that females sometimes drag their rear end, urine marking as they walk; and males rub their cheeks on walls, etc., in a similar manner to cats. It would be interesting to know for sure if they have scent glands on their faces.
Sara and Heckle
Behavior towards other household pets depends on whether or not they were exposed at a young age. African's not exposed to domestic rats while young will often times try to kill the smaller rat. My leg was in the way during one of these encounters, thank goodness, or Lyric probably would have killed Heckle. Not that I enjoyed the bites, but my leg handled them much easier than Heckle's tiny body would have. On the other hand, Sara was exposed to Slash when she was only about two months old and they became fast friends. After Slash died, I brought Heckle into the bedroom as my single rat since he had lost his roommate and would not accept another. He and Sara got on famously, playing together, grooming each other, and sleeping together. When Sara died recently, Heckle was heartbroken and didn't want to come out of his cage. Since Sara's untimely death, Tanzania (Tanzy) has been introduced to Heckle, but she is a bit too young and rambunctious for his now old and frail body, although I do allow them to spend a small amount of time together.
HOUSING AND SUPPLIES
Due to their large size and love of running, unless you can convert an entire room of your home into a cage, completely rat-proofing it, finding a cage that will completely accommodate an African rat is nearly impossible. Therefore, buying the largest cage available is the best we can do. Finding a nice ferret cage approximately three feet high, two and one half feet wide and deep is adequate (any larger than that and you'll have difficulty handling it to clean it). The cage must have a sold floor as these rats hate to walk on wire (and, of course, it's not good for their feet anyway). A powder-coated solid metal pan is best as the urine of African's is very corrosive to untreated or galvanized metal. You'll also want to be sure that the cage is made from thick wire because they are very adept at chewing, although it normally takes them quite some time to break through. Several levels are also welcomed by the Pouched rat who enjoys bouncing up and down ladders during playtime. The levels must also be a solid metal surface or the rats will not want to use them. No part of a Pouched rats cage should be wood or plastic or it will be chewed beyond recognition in no time. The cage should also have a very large door opening, but a lock will be needed at the bottom corner of the door, in addition to the normal door-lock, if you plan to keep the rat inside. They will try to work the lock as well, so be aware and buy one of good quality.
Sara with full pouches, side view
Supervised playtime outside the cage is a must to ensure a healthy, well adjusted pet, but cage toys should also be provided. The best of these toys is a wheel. Both female and male African rats seem to enjoy running on one. Nursing moms can even be seen pretending to scavenge for food and bedding materials, putting it in their pouches, running a short distance on the wheel, and presumably taking it back to their nest. It's quite funny to watch. The minimum size wheel is fifteen inches, but seventeen inches is much better. The wheel must also be of solid metal (Note: you may have to have one custom made).
Hardwood chews help to satisfy their lust for chewing and the best I've found so far are the arbutus or manzanita wood large bird toys. These can be fairly expensive, but they last a long time and are well worth the extra dollars spent.
A food dish is necessary only if you want to use one. I normally fill up the food dish at cage cleaning and put it in long enough for them to empty it and hide the contents in their nest. If you use a plastic dish it will be chewed on and destroyed, most likely at night while they are bored and you are trying to sleep. Metal dishes CAN be chewed as well, but at least stand a better chance against those incredibly strong rodent teeth. They will also be banged around the cage at night in an effort to keep you awake! It's best just to let them stash their food and remove the dish for your own sanity.
The water bottle should be placed on the outside of the cage or it, too, will be chewed. Some African's drink a lot of water and require a large bottle, while others get most of their moisture from their fresh fruits and vegetables. You will have to determine for yourself the habits of your rat.
Litter is not tolerated well by African rats. I've tried using many different types of substrates to absorb their strong smelling urine, but all are pushed out through the bars each night. This can get very expensive and is very messy. With one pair I have managed to insert cardboard pieces in the pan to extend it higher in an effort to keep them from pushing it all out somewhat successfully. They still get a little bit out, but it's tolerable. With the other ones, it's a daily fight and cleanup process. I've tried just giving them T-shirts to nest in, but the cage bottom becomes filthy far too soon and, with the number of rats I have, it's too much work to clean those large cages every other day.
Whether or not you manage to keep the litter in the cage, you still need to provide bedding or nesting material. This is very important to African rats. Old T-shirts, shredded paper towels, or shredded newspaper (non-toxic soy based inks only) make wonderful nesting material for them and they will quite often fashion them like a bird's nest with all of their food stashed underneath.
Last on the list of cage supplies needed is a corner guard, sometimes called a pee guard. African rats back themselves into one corner of their cage to defecate so you'll want one of these little wonders to keep the droppings from ending up on the floor. However, they do not back themselves into a corner to urinate and most often go right outside of their nest.
In the wild, these rats are omnivorous, which makes them very easy to feed in captivity. A diet consisting of good quality laboratory pellets, rat and mouse grain and seed mix, lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and plenty of fresh clean water is a good starting point. In addition, you may want to increase the variety of your African's diet by introducing dried fruits, raw unsalted mixed nuts, and healthy table scraps. Some suggested foods are:
FRUITS: Apples, bananas, cantaloupe, pears, plums, apricots, oranges, watermelon, honeydew, strawberries, cherries, grapes, mangoes, papaya, peaches, nectarines, and tomatoes.
DRIED FRUITS: Raisins, prunes, dates, figs, and apricots.
VEGETABLES: Broccoli, cauliflower, avocado, cucumber, carrots, corn, potato, yam, squash, and bean sprouts.
NUTS: Peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, filberts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, and pecans.
MISCELLANEOUS: Cooked chicken, hard boiled egg, scrambled egg, spaghetti with sauce, and low fat string cheese.
Of course, not all African rats are going to like everything listed above and you may want to try giving yours many other tasty foods, but remember, African Giant Pouched rats are hoarders, and if offered one of their favorites, will take as much as you will give. I have seen an adult female stuff 27 large Thompson seedless grapes into her cheek pouches, unload her treasure and come back for more! While it is normally recommended to remove uneaten fresh foods from the cages of domestic rats, it is not necessary to do so with the African's. As long as it is a food that your African is fond of, he/she will finish it before it goes bad. I have yet to see any rotten food in the cage of an African rat at cleaning time.
Sara with full pouches, front view
Most African rats will not tolerate being held for any longer than a minute or two. The best time to try to cuddle one of these giants is immediately after awakening them. At this time, they will be very sleepy and timid and will let you cuddle them like a baby. As soon as they are wide awake, however, they will again be a handful and struggle to get down.
While trying to hold an alert African rat, it is very important to support them by pressing them against your body. They do not like to be held out in mid-air and will struggle and scratch for all they're worth to get away.
You can sustain some serious scratches from their long, sharp nails if you do not clip them on a regular basis. Clipping is not easy, but can be done, with patience. I normally put them on the bed and restrain only one foot at a time clipping only one nail with each restraint, allowing several seconds to pass before trying another.
The tail of the African rat is very strong and is held up in the air while running around. You can use the tail to carefully lift the rat, providing you do it at the base and not at the tip.
While holding one of these giants that does not wish to be held, he/she may use their teeth to push you away. Quite often, they will hook their bottom teeth in the soft area between your thumb and forefinger and steadily push trying to get free. They will also push at you with their front paws and kick with their back feet like a cat or rabbit will kick when trying to get away.
The gestation period of the African Giant Pouched rat is approximately 30 to 32 days. Litters may number from one to six, but the average litter is three or four. The young are born blind and naked as are our domestic rats. The eyes open at 21 to 23 days, and although they start to pouch small food items while their eyes are still closed, they begin to eat a lot of solid food once they're open. Weaning takes place at approximately six weeks of age and they do not get a full coat of hair until they are approximately ten weeks old.
Sexual maturity is reached at 20 weeks of age. A prolific couple who lives together can produce a litter every few months, but this is not healthy for the female. Finding a prolific couple is a problem, however, as it seems many females do not reproduce. I have been unable to find any information to support this theory, but in the last few years we've come to the conclusion that it must only be the dominant female who reproduces. In the litter of three females born to Monster and Lily, only Sahara, the largest of the three, conceives. Both Lyric and Kalahari have been bred numerous times and do not conceive. I would like to hear from other breeders of this species to see if they have experienced this as well.
The male can be left in with the female to help raise the babies, but there is a risk with some fathers of a baby being squished in the nest with both parents vying for position. If you choose to leave the father in with the family, you may be delighted to see how wonderful the family unit works together. When Monster and Lily surprised us with three babies one month after being rescued, I was amazed at how childlike Monster was with his kids. Lily was always very motherly, but she didn't play with the babies like daddy did.
It is said that the African Giant Pouched rat can get respiratory infections like our domestic rats are prone to, but in the years I have had them, I have yet to have one get even the slightest symptoms even though they are housed in the same room with domestic rats who carry mycoplasma pulmonis and occasionally break with active infections. Even in an outbreak of SDA Virus, the Africans were not affected.
To date, I have only had two African's leave me through death. Lily, who was older when we rescued her, had abscesses in her body that we treated with no success, which eventually tore her system down and forced us to euthanize her. Sara, however, was only 14 months old and in perfect health when she suddenly left us. There was no apparent reason for her death so we had a necropsy done. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism (blood clot) which is a freak thing that can happen to anybody at any time in his/her life. She was the sweetest, most gentle, and wonderful of all the Africans we have had and she broke our hearts by leaving us so soon. There will never be another Sara.
For the most part, an African Giant Pouched rat can make a wonderful, playful, and loving pet, providing you meet all of its needs. But it's very important to know that it is a wild animal you are choosing to take into your home and you need to take responsibility for the life in your care, even if it doesn't work out as well as you had hoped. No animal is disposable.
If, after reading this article, you still have your heart set on obtaining an African Giant Pouched rat, you will have to do some searching to find them. There are not many breeders in the United States and, because the unpredictability of these rats cause many who were excited about getting one to begin with to want to get rid of it when it shows its wild tendencies, there are now even less breeders. It's impossible for any breeder to take back rats of this size when its owner decides it no longer wants it, and that makes this animal too much of a risk for a responsible breeder to produce.