The Gambian pouched rat is a large rodent that’s native to Sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. has banned importation of Gambian pouched rats. But there are still some states that permit them as pets when acquired from U.S. breeders. Unlike the domestic rats many people know as pets, these rodents have cheek pouches like a hamster that they use to gather food. And, while these animals are bred in captivity for the pet trade, they aren't always easy to tame.
As pets, Gambian pouched rats need lots of daily handling from a young age to keep them tame. They also need a large enclosure in which they can exercise. Plus, their diet is somewhat complex because there aren’t commercial foods made specifically for them. Overall, this rodent is a pretty high-maintenance pet that requires a knowledgeable and dedicated owner.
Common Name: Gambian pouched rat
Scientific Name: Cricetomys gambianus
Adult Size: 28 inches to 36 inches long, weighing 2 to 3 pounds on average
Lifespan: 7 years on average
Gambian Pouched Rat Behavior and Temperament
Temperament varies among Gambian pouched rats, and some are easier to tame than others. As pets, certain rats will remain skittish and possibly aggressive into adulthood despite your best efforts to socialize with them. However, with regular handling most become friendly and gentle. They're very intelligent and playful animals. Some of them even like belly rubs.
As youngsters, Gambian pouched rats often go through a nippy stage during play and need gentle training to break the habit. Give a firm "no" or loud "ouch," and end playtime if it recurs. They also will sometimes grasp you with their mouths—not a bite, just a hold—and try to push you away if they object to something. Respect this as their way to communicate, but give a “no” or “ouch” if the hold is ever painful. While some like to be held and cuddled, others will squirm away from handling but are still friendly overall. Most do tend to form strong bonds with the people who care for them.
These rats are social animals and can be housed in pairs or small groups. However, some males can be quite territorial and aggressive. This is particularly the case around sexual maturity, and they often calm down again given time and patience. Still, it's best not to house two males together, as they likely will fight. Two females can typically coexist well, especially when raised together from a young age. And spayed and neutered males and females also can live together. Furthermore, it’s best to keep these rodents away from any other pets in the household, as they might injure one another.
Expect to spend a lot of time each day caring for your pet—socializing with it, feeding it, and keeping its habitat clean. These rodents are nocturnal, so your social time with them will likely have to take place in the evening. Furthermore, some owners are unprepared for the destructive abilities of Gambian pouched rats. Like other rodents, they need to chew. And with their large teeth, they can do a lot of damage quickly chewing your possessions if they aren’t supervised when outside of their cage. Fortunately, these are fairly quiet pets overall, though they do make some chirping noises.
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Gambian pouched rats stretch roughly 28 inches to 36 inches from nose to tail tip. And they weigh 2 to 3 pounds on average.
Gambian pouched rats need a large, sturdy enclosure. In general, the cage should be as large as you can fit and afford. At minimum, it can be around 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet tall.
Powder-coated metal or stainless steel are the best cage materials, as these rodents can easily chew through wood or plastic. And a multi-level cage with ramps and platforms is ideal, such as one you would have for a ferret or chinchilla. Avoid any cages with wire floors or shelves, as this can hurt their feet.
Add a nest box and a variety of wooden chew toys to the enclosure. Large wooden parrot toys often work well. Some dog chew toys also can be beneficial. But plastic toys are hazardous, as your rodent might break off and ingest a piece. An exercise wheel is also an excellent idea. The wheel should have a solid metal surface with at least a 15-inch diameter.
Specific Substrate Needs
At the bottom of the enclosure, add a few inches of aspen wood shavings, dye-free paper, or pulp-based material for bedding. Don’t use cedar or pine, as their oils can be dangerous to rodents. Plus, provide some paper towels or tissues (with no dyes or perfumes) that your rat can use as nesting material.
If your cage doesn’t have a base to hold in the bedding, you can add a urine shield—a strip of metal or plastic that goes around the outside of the lower part of the cage. This also helps to prevent waste from coming out of the cage, as the rodents generally choose a corner as their bathroom.
Clean the cage thoroughly on a weekly basis. Change all the bedding, and scrub the surfaces with mild soap and water. Also, spot clean throughout the week by removing soiled bedding.
What Do Gambian Pouched Rats Eat & Drink?
Gambian pouched rats are omnivores in the wild, eating plants and animals including various vegetation, insects, and small mammals. As pets, they need a varied diet that includes a commercial rat grain mix, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, insects (such as crickets and mealworms), and cooked lean meats and eggs. Consult your veterinarian for the appropriate quantity and variety to feed for the size, age, and activity level of your animal.
It’s typically best to feed any perishable foods in the evening when rats are waking up and hungry, so they consume them quickly. You can leave the other foods, such as the grains and seeds, in a small bowl in the enclosure for your rodent to graze on. Remove any uneaten food within 24 hours. A small ceramic bowl or a stainless steel bowl that attaches to the side of the enclosure work best for feeding. Your rat will be able to flip lightweight bowls and chew through anything made of plastic.
Also, remember that Gambian pouched rats stuff their cheeks with food and often store it in another part of their enclosure for a later meal. So monitor the cage for uneaten food hidden in the bedding that will spoil.
Your rat will always need access to fresh water. A water bottle attached to the side of the enclosure is ideal to keep the water clean. But keep a water dish in the enclosure as well until you're sure your rat is consistently drinking from the bottle.
Common Health Problems
Gambian pouched rats are generally healthy and hardy animals, though they are prone to some common rodent diseases, including:
- Respiratory infections: Unsanitary conditions often can be the cause of respiratory diseases. Some symptoms include nasal discharge, wheezing, and open-mouth breathing.
- Digestive issues: Diarrhea due to bacterial or parasitic infections is common in rodents.
- Tumors: Older rodents are prone to various types of tumors.
- Overgrown teeth: Rodent teeth continuously grow and must be worn down via their diet and chewing materials. Overgrown teeth can impact eating and often must be trimmed by a vet.
Training Your Gambian Pouched Rat
Like other rodents, Gambian pouched rats tend to pick one spot—often a corner of their enclosure—as their bathroom. Some owners place a litter box there to make cleaning easier. It can be helpful to use a different kind of bedding in the litter box to help your rat differentiate between it and the rest of the enclosure. If your rat switches to using a different corner, move the litter box there.
Eventually, the rat should accept the litter box as its bathroom. If you catch it using the litter box, immediately offer a favorite treat to reinforce the behavior. Clean the litter box every couple of days, as a rat might avoid using a dirty box.
Exercise is essential for Gambian pouched rats to provide mental stimulation and keep them physically fit, helping to ward off health issues such as obesity. They should get at least a few hours out of their cage each day for supervised playtime and socialization. Make sure to provide toys both in and out of the cage to encourage them to move.
Gambian pouched rats will regularly self-groom. They generally don’t need baths, but you occasionally might need to help them clean dirt embedded in their fur by gently rubbing the area with a damp cloth.
Your essential regular costs for a Gambian pouched rat will be its food and bedding. Expect to pay around $20 to $50 on average per month, depending on the varieties you choose and how large your enclosure is. Also, you’ll regularly have to replace chew toys and other worn items at a cost of around $10 to $20. Finally, make sure to budget for routine veterinary checkups and emergency care.
Pros & Cons of Keeping a Gambian Pouched Rat as a Pet
Gambian pouched rats make interesting, intelligent, and playful pets. They also are fairly quiet and don’t take up a massive amount of space. However, their diet can be complicated because there aren’t commercial foods made especially for them. And they need a lot of attention to keep them tame.
Similar Exotic Pets to the Gambian Pouched Rat
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Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your new pet.
Purchasing or Adopting Your Gambian Pouched Rat
There aren’t many U.S. breeders that sell this particular species, so you might have to travel quite a distance to pick out your animal. There are also some rescue organizations where you can adopt a Gambian pouched rat. Expect to pay around $200 to $500 on average, though this can vary based on age and other factors.
Check with local exotic veterinarians for recommendations on a reputable breeder or rescue group. It’s best to see the animal in person before committing to it. Ask the seller for thorough information on the rat’s origin, health history, and temperament. Aim to pick a rat that has been handled all its life, and avoid ones that are extremely skittish. Also, ask to see the enclosures where the seller keeps its animals to make sure they are in clean conditions.
If you plan to keep rats of the opposite sex together, discuss spaying and neutering with your vet prior to putting them together to avoid any accidental breeding.
Does a Gambian pouched rat make a good pet for kids?
Gambian pouched rats generally aren't good pets for children, as they need careful handling and a knowledgable owner to keep them tame and meet their care needs.
Are Gambian pouched rats hard to take care of?
Gambian pouched rats are fairly high-maintenance. Their diet can be complicated, and they can be difficult to tame.
Do Gambian pouched rats like to be held?
Some Gambian pouched rats remain skittish about handling even with efforts to tame them. However, others can become quite friendly and enjoy petting and handling.
African Rodents | Bringing An Animal Into U.S. | Importation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rat Care. ASPCA.