Keeping Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches as Pets

Believe it or not, they're docile, hardy, and like to be handled

A Madagascar hissing cockroach
A Madagascar hissing cockroach. Andrew Bee/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Few of us have ever considered keeping a cockroach as a pet. It seems anathema from the perspective of anyone who likes to snuggle with a soft, furry animal. Yet, there are people who find cockroaches fascinating, and there are species of sweet-natured cockroaches who don't mind humans petting their brittle exoskeleton.

Despite its fearsome title, the Madagascar hissing cockroach, which its human fans describe as hardy, docile, and easy to handle, actually fits that description to a T. The easygoing nature of these survivors makes them well suited to those who are beginners at caring for exotic insect pets.

Their Background and Behavior

The Madagascar hissing cockroach, Gromphadorhina portentosa, native to the large island of Madagascar off the African mainland, grows up to 3 inches long at maturity, making it one of the world's largest cockroach species. In the wild, where these wood dwellers are commonly found in downed logs, they live two to three years, but in captivity they have been known to live up to five years.

Madagascar hissing cockroaches, or "hissers," are dark reddish brown to black, with a hard exoskeleton and, unlike most cockroaches, no wings. These wingless wonders compensate by being excellent, determined climbers who can even scale glass walls. They are one of about 20 species of large cockroaches on Madagascar, many of which are kept as exotic pets. 

Hissing cockroaches have a pair of modified spiracles (the tubes insects use for breathing) that they use to produce the hissing sound that inspired their name. They will hiss when disturbed and males hiss when courting females. Sometimes a whole colony will hiss in unison, for reasons that are unclear to us.

Some US states, including Florida, require individuals or institutions who want to keep lone hissers or breeding colonies to have a special permit. If you are raising hissers, it is advisable not to take females, especially pregnant females, out of their habitat to prevent introducing an invasive species into the local environment.

Their Care and Feeding

A 10- to 15-gallon fish tank will house several Madagascar hissing cockroaches comfortably. Use a secure mesh lid; test it to make sure your determined climbers can't get out and double down by applying a thick coating of petroleum jelly to the first few inches of their habitat. Aspen wood shavings, 1–2 inches deep, are a suitable substrate for hissers, who don't like cedar or pine. Provide some hiding places because hissers do not like the light; they will be happy with hiding places as simple as 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 a bit above room temperature; they tolerate temperatures of 75–90℉ (24–32℃) well.

Hissing cockroaches should be fed a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, including romaine and other leafy greens (except not 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 and pea pods, and other colorful vegetables. Remove uneaten food after a while to avoid spoilage.

Water should be provided in a shallow dish with cotton or some other absorbent material in it to prevent your cockroaches from drowning.