The Gambian pouched rat is a large rodent that’s native to Sub-Saharan Africa. 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. In fact, a group of Gambian pouched rats notoriously escaped from a Florida breeder and now are deemed an invasive species in that area because of their ability to compete with native wildlife. Plus, this rodent is also thought to have played a role in a monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. So in 2003, the U.S. banned importation of the animal. But there are still some states that permit them as pets when acquired from U.S. breeders.
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 from nose to tail tip, weighing 2 to 3 pounds on average
Life Expectancy: Seven years
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.
Moreover, males can be quite territorial and aggressive. This is particularly the case around sexual maturity, though they often calm down again given time and patience. Still, don’t house two males together, as they likely will fight. And if you have more than one male, wash your hands between handling them, or they might react to the smell of the other rat with aggression. Two females can typically coexist well, especially when raised together from a young age. However, 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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Housing the Gambian Pouched Rat
Gambian pouched rats need at least a few hours out of their cage each day for supervised playtime and socialization. For the rest of the time, they’ll need a large, sturdy enclosure. In general, the cage should be as large as you can fit and afford. At a 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.
At the bottom, add a few inches of aspen wood shavings, paper, or pulp-based material for bedding. Don’t use cedar or pine, as they can irritate the animal’s respiratory system. Plus, provide some paper towels or tissues (with no dyes or perfumes) that your animal 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. Some owners put a litter box in their rodent’s chosen bathroom corner, which can make cleaning easier.
Furthermore, add 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.
Food and Water
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 they 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 make sure your rat is consistently drinking from the bottle before removing its water dish.
Common Health Problems
Before acquiring a Gambian pouched rat, make sure there is a veterinarian near you who can treat the species. They are generally healthy and hardy animals, though they are prone to a few health issues.
Some might acquire respiratory illnesses. So if you notice any excess mucus around your rat’s eyes, nose, or mouth, consult your vet as soon as possible. Also, some rats might pick up mites and fleas from their environment. Common signs of these parasites include excessive itching and missing patches of fur. And if your rat doesn’t have enough chew toys to wear down its continuously growing teeth, its teeth can become overgrown and cause it difficulty when eating. Some signs of overgrown teeth are a lack of appetite and weight loss. Your vet can trim the teeth if necessary and then give you some dental maintenance tips.
Is It Legal to Own a Gambian Pouched Rat?
As noted, the import of Gambian pouched rats is illegal in the U.S. This species also is illegal as a pet in many states due to the threat to native species should these rodents be released into the wild. However, there are a handful of states that don’t have specific laws concerning this species, though many require a permit to keep exotic animals. Be sure to check your local laws, which can differ from state laws. And note any homeowners association or rental rules about exotic pets.
Purchasing Your Gambian Pouched Rat
There aren’t many U.S. breeders that sell this particular species, so you might have to travel quite a way 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.
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. Otherwise, there’s a higher chance you’ll take home an animal with an infection or other health issue.
Similar Pets to the Gambian Pouched Rat
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Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your new pet.
African Rodents | Bringing An Animal Into U.S. | Importation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020
African Giant Pouched Rat. Sandiegozoo.Org, 2020
Gambian rat. Texas Invasive Species Institute, 2020