Chances are most of us have never considered keeping a cockroach as a pet. Yet, some people find cockroaches fascinating, and there are species of good-natured cockroaches who don't mind humans petting their brittle exoskeleton. The easygoing nature of the Madagascar hissing cockroach makes it a good starter pet for owners who are new to insect keeping. Despite its fearsome name, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches are described by their human fans as hardy, docile, and easy to handle.
Common Name: Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
Scientific Name: Gromphadorhina portentosa
Adult Size: Up to 3 inches in length
Life Expectancy: Up to 5 years
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Madagascar Hissing Cockroach Behavior and Temperament
The Madagascar hissing cockroach, Gromphadorhina portentosa, native to the large island of Madagascar off the East coast of Southern Africa, is one of the world's largest cockroach species. In the native habitat, these wood dwellers are commonly found living in fallen and decaying trees or in dry leaf litter.
Madagascar hissing cockroaches, otherwise known as "hissers," are a dark reddish-brown to black in color, with a hard exoskeleton. Unlike most cockroaches, they have no wings for flight or jumping. They compensate by being determined excellent climbers who can even scale glass walls. They are only one of the roughly 20 species of cockroach on Madagascar, many of which are kept as exotic pets.
Some U.S. states, including Florida, require individuals or institutions who want to keep hissers to have a special permit, whether for captive breeding colonies or even one lone hisser. Permits specify and advise keepers not to ever take the females, especially pregnant females, out of their habitats. This is required to prevent the inadvertent introduction of an invasive species into U.S. environments.
The Hissing Sound
Hissing cockroaches have a pair of modified spiracles; these are the tubes insects use for breathing. These insects use these spiracles to produce the hissing sound that inspired their name. They will hiss when disturbed, and males also hiss when courting females. Sometimes a whole colony will hiss in unison, for reasons that are as yet unclear to researchers.
Hissers force air through the spiracles to produce all of their various hissing sounds; one call is used to attract a mate, another is used when the cockroach is feeling threatened (known as the "disturbance" hiss), and a third known hiss is a warning, used when a male cockroach is preparing to attack another male.
Adult male roaches can be identified by their two large protruding bumps (tubercles) on their dorsal plate (prothorax) behind the head. Adult females also have tubercles in the same location but they are smooth.
Housing the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
A 5- to 10-gallon fish tank will house several Madagascar hissing cockroaches comfortably. Use a secure mesh lid. Also, make sure your determined climbers can't get out by applying a thick coating of petroleum jelly to the top few inches of the glass walls in the habitat.
Aspen wood shavings, one to two inches deep, are a suitable substrate for the hissers; avoid cedar or pine shavings which will make them sick. Because hissers do not like bright light, provide only very subdued ambient lighting, and add some hiding places. They will be happy with hiding places as simple as the cardboard rolls from toilet paper, pieces of cardboard egg cartons, cork bark, driftwood, and small cardboard boxes.
Being tropical creatures, hissing cockroaches are most at home when they're kept at just above room temperature; they tolerate temperatures of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure your enclosure is secure; while they're not known as escape artists, a Madagascar hissing cockroach could be killed by a fall from a tabletop (or by an unsuspecting human who steps on an escapee).
Food and Water
Feed hissing cockroaches a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, including romaine and other leafy greens (avoid iceberg lettuce) in combination with a pellet food that's high in protein, such as dry dog food. Carrots seem to be a favorite, along with oranges, apples, bananas, tomatoes, celery, squash, peas, pea pods, and other colorful vegetables.
Remove uneaten food after a few days to avoid spoilage. Unlike some other cockroaches, hissers may not eat decaying or rotting food matter. Clean and clear fresh, non-chlorinated water should be provided in a shallow dish that has climbable rocks in it to prevent your pets from drowning.
Common Health Problems
Madagascar hissing cockroaches are hardy; just like most cockroaches, they don't have many health issues. One thing to watch out for, however, is dehydration; if your pet cockroach looks shriveled or wrinkled, it's probably not getting enough water. If it's not showing signs of dehydration and it hisses slightly when you first touch it (indicating anxiety), then you've got a healthy cockroach.
Cockroaches molt (shedding their outer exoskeleton) six separate times before reaching maturity. This period is when your cockroach is at its most vulnerable; it may hide and not eat the day before a molt as it prepares for the shed. Once it reaches about seven months of age, it stops molting and has reached adulthood.
Purchasing Your Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
These aren't your standard kitchen-invading cockroaches. You must buy them on Amazon or from a reputable insect breeder; they cost between $2 and $10 each. If you want to set up your own breeding colony, purchase at least 10 individuals; request four adult females for every one adult male. This will increase the chances that your breeding colony will provide large numbers of roaches for many years to come.
This pet can be a good choice for kids, especially if you're trying to help a child get over a fear of creepy-crawly creatures. This slow insect doesn't skitter like other bugs, which is a major fear factor for those with entomophobia (fear of insects), and it will tolerate being handled, up to a point. If an insect ever can be considered cute, the Madagascar hissing cockroach gets pretty close.
Similar Pets to the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
If you still aren't sure whether you want to own a pet cockroach but are interested in other invertebrates you can keep as pets, check out:
Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your pet.