Gambian Pouched Rats - Exotic Pets and An Invasive Species

A HeroRAT trained by APOPO to find land mines receives a reward.
A HeroRAT trained by APOPO to find land mines receives a reward. | Source

Gambian pouched rats are interesting animals. They are sometimes kept as exotic pets and can become very affectionate, although the temperament of individual rats varies. They are also intelligent and playful. In Tanzania they’ve been trained to detect land mines due to their excellent sense of smell and the fact that their bodies are too light to detonate the mines. They've also been trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum samples.

Gambian pouched rats can grow up to three feet long (including their tail) and can weigh three to four pounds. They are rodents, but they belong to a different family from the common wild and domestic rats. Like hamsters, Gambian pouched rats have pouches in their cheeks to store food. They live in Africa south of the Sahara and are also known as African giant pouched rats.

Unfortunately, a group of animals escaped from a breeder in Florida and colonized an island called Grassy Key, where they’ve become an invasive species. In addition, in 2003 they may have played a role in an outbreak of monkeypox in the United States.

A Young Gambian Pouched Rat

A pet Emin's pouched rat
A pet Emin's pouched rat | Source

Gambian Pouched Rats in Their Native Habitat

The scientific name of the Gambian pouched rat is Cricetomys gambianus. It's sometimes confused with its relative, Cricetomys emini, which is known as Emin's pouched rat. This species is also kept as an exotic pet. The Emin's pouched rat tends to be smaller and more slender. There are also some coloration differences between the two species.

Strangely, although Gambian pouched rats are common animals and are caught for food by many people, not very much is known about their lives in the wild. The rats may live as solitary animals or in a colony. Research suggests that the males are more likely to be solitary, while the females and babies are more likely to live in a colony.

The animals are found in a variety of habitats that offer some form of shelter, such as areas with trees, rocky outcrops or more open areas that contain burrows dug by other creatures. The burrows often become a network of tunnels once the rats move in. Gambian pouched rats are adaptable animals and migrate to other areas if these are more desirable or if their original habitat is damaged.

The rats are usually nocturnal in the wild and have an omnivorous diet. They eat plants and plant parts, insects, and other small invertebrates. They collect food in their pouches to take back to their burrows and are great hoarders.

Gambian pouched rats are prolific breeders. Females can have their first litter at around five months, and it's reported that in the wild they have from four to nine litters a year! The gestation period is thirty to thirty-two days. The babies are born with their eyes and ears closed and they have no hair. A litter consists of 1 to 6 pups, but generally contains four babies. The animals live for about six to eight years.

A Young Pet Gambian Pouched Rat

Thistle, A Pet Gambian Pouched Rat

An Emin's Pouched Rat Using a Human Toilet

Pouched Rats as Exotic Pets

Gambian pouched rats are bred in captivity. However, they aren't domesticated animals. It takes a long period of selective breeding to fully domesticate a wild animal.

A pouched rat needs to be socialized and trained from a very early age. The animals need lots of exercise as well. Daily handling and attention is very important, even when a pup has come from a careful breeder who is trying to produce good pet animals. Prospective owners need to have time to care for their pouched rats. The animals can't be left in a cage continuously, and when they are let out of their cage they should stay out for a long time. If they aren't petted regularly and played with every day they are likely to quickly lose their friendliness and confidence.

Pouched rats like to run, jump and climb. Their cage needs to be large and have lots of toys arranged at different levels. The rat must be able to move rapidly around the cage, preferably by different routes. The pet will destroy many of the toys, so a replacement supply needs to be available to keep the animal entertained while it's shut in the cage. Of course, all the toys must be safe to chew. The rats have a low body fat content and get cold quickly, so they need to be kept warm.

Pouched rats kept as pets eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, meats and egg. The pet's breeder should be consulted about a suitable diet. The rats like to dig into the litter at the bottom of the cage and store food there as well. They usually back into a corner to urinate and defecate. Owners say that pouched rats can be potty trained, using a dish partially filled with water as a toilet, but their litter still needs to be cleaned regularly because it may contain decaying food.

Gambian pouched rats have large and strong teeth. They love to chew and can be very destructive. Although pet rats are often docile, it's important to realize that they could give a painful bite if they wanted to. As with any exotic pet, owning a Gambian pouched rat is a much more demanding job than owning a domesticated animal. The pups are cute, but someone considering buying one needs to do a lot of research about the responsibilities of owning this pet. They also need to think very carefully about the advisability of welcoming a pouched rat into their home.

Training Gambian Pouched Rats - Hero Rats

A Gambian pouched rat at work
A Gambian pouched rat at work | Source

A Pouched Rat Being Trained to Detect Land Mines

Land Mine Protection and Tuberculosis Detection

APOPO is an organization started by a Belgian man named Bart Weetjens. His goal is to train rats to save human lives by detecting land mines and tuberculosis. The rats are trained with a clicker, just as some pet dogs are trained. The animals hear a click from the clicker and receive a food reward to reinforce their behavior when they perform successfully. Bananas and peanut butter are favorite treats. The animals are known as HeroRATS.

APOPO is based in Tanzania. Both land mines and tuberculosis are big problems in some parts of Africa and in some other countries too. Gambian pouched rats were chosen as helpers because they are trainable, are often friendly and have a great sense of smell. They can detect land mines in both metal and plastic cases. They also live naturally in the area and are long lived, inexpensive to care for and resistant to many local diseases.

When surveying an area for land mines a rat is attached to a harness which is in turn attached to a rope by a leash. The rope is suspended in the air by two human handlers. The rat is trained to scratch the ground when it detects a mine. The area is then marked by the humans and the mine is later removed. According to the APOPO website, two HeroRATS can survey 300 square meters of land in one hour, whereas two manual deminers using metal detectors would take two days.

Animals that are trained to detect tuberculosis enter a cage and sniff a series of holes that have sputum samples underneath. If a rat detects TB it keeps its nose in the hole for at least three seconds and also scratches the hole. APOPO says that the rats can sample 40 sputum samples in seven minutes instead of the full day needed by a lab technician, and in addition the rats detect cases of TB that are missed by humans.

An Emin's Pouched Rat Eating

Gambian Pouched Rats As An Invasive Species

Despite their ability to become delightful pets and their usefulness in helping to save human lives, in Florida feral Gambian pouched rats have become a potential problem.

The situation is thought to have begun when a pet breeder released pouched rats - reportedly six to eight individuals - into the wild on Grassy Key (or when the animals escaped). The rats reproduced rapidly. There were serious concerns that they would damage the habitat, compete with local species and migrate to other environmentally sensitive areas.

Beginning in 2007 poisonous bait was distributed as food. In 2009 the rat population seemed to have disappeared. In 2011, however, new reports of pouched rat sightings appeared, and the reports continued into 2012. A new attack was mounted. Once again it seemed like the battle against the rats was succeeding, but in 2014 it became obvious that the giant rat population hadn't been eliminated.

There are fears that the pouched rats are competing with endangered native wood rats. Officials are very concerned about the rats reaching the mainland and the Everglades. Gambian pouched rats have damaged food crops in Africa and might have a serious effect on agricultural crops on the U.S. mainland. New attempts are being made to remove the animals, which include a trapping program.

Questions and Answers About Monkeypox

Monkeypox Transmission

In 2003 it was suggested that Gambian pouched rats were implicated in an outbreak of monkeypox in the United States. Monkeypox is a viral disease related to smallpox, although it's generally - but not always - less serious. The virus is often carried inside rodent bodies.

It was discovered that most of the people who became ill with monkeypox had come into contact with infected prairie dogs. It's thought that an animal vendor placed cages containing imported and infected Gambian pouched rats and other infected rodents close to cages containing prairie dogs. This allowed the virus to pass to the prairie dogs. CDC testing showed that one of the pouched rats and several of the other rodents contained the virus in their bodies. Humans may have become infected when they handled the prairie dogs.

Despite the potential problems caused by the rats, I think they are lovely animals. Like any non-native species, though, they are best appreciated in their original environment and habitat where they are endemic.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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Comments 26 comments

A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 4 years ago from Texas

Fascinating! I would love to read more about these rodents sniffing out mines. It's a unique idea that seems effective. Awesome!

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

Interesting. Very comprehensive.

ivanmarginal profile image

ivanmarginal 4 years ago from Jakarta

Very cute pet! Though it would be difficult for me to seek this very animal in my pet shop, lol. Thanks for sharing this.

Nettlemere profile image

Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

Interesting and well researched. I'd heard of these being used to find landmines, but didn't know they were being used to ID TB or that they'd escaped into Florida.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Augustine. Yes, the use of pouched rats to discover land mines sounds like a wonderful idea. The animals don't seem to live a bad life, and their work is very useful in the clearing of land so that it can be safely used again.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, Melissa A Smith!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, ivanmarginal. Thanks for the visit. Pouched rats are interesting animals, and the babies are very cute. I hope they aren't available in pet shops, though! People need to visit a breeder to buy one so that they can get advice from a knowledgeable person.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Nettlemere. It's a shame that some people may have heard of these animals only in relation to the problem in Florida or the monkeypox outbreak. They are actually fascinating animals that can be very helpful to humans.

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

I remember reading about the Gambian pouched rats that colonized Grassy Key in the Florida Keys, but this is the first time I've seen one up close. Thanks for the interesting introduction, Alicia.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, drbj. The Gambian pouched rats in Florida seem to be very resilient to human attempts to remove them! It's a great shame that the original animals escaped from their owner.

Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

I loved this hub and rats are indeed so clever and make wonderful pets ; I am sharing this one plus interesting/useful/awesome and up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Eddy! I appreciate the votes and the share very much. Yes, pouched rats are clever animals. They do seem to make good pets too, provided someone has the time to give them the attention that they need.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I didn't realize they were so intelligent, but then I guess that's why they are used in laboratory experiments.. I enjoyed the article on these rats, but I don't think I am ready for such an exotic pet. Voted up.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, teaches. I enjoy watching videos of pet pouched rats and reading about their funny antics, but I'm not ready to keep one as a pet - or to keep any exotic animal as a pet, for that matter. Exotic pets require a lot of effort to look after. My domesticated pet family is enough work for me! Thanks for the comment and the vote.

b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 4 years ago

Great Hub, Alicia. I had never heard of Gambia pouched Rats. I'm not sure that I personally would want one has a pet. But I'm impressed with their ways and manners...being able to be "Potty" trained...Not Bad.

Of course being able to seek out Land Minds is Wonderful. thanks for sharing a most Enlightening as well as Interesting Hub.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, b. Malin. Pouched rats are impressive animals. Their ability to detect land mines and tuberculosis is very useful! It's wonderful that they can be trained to help people.

moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

I had tame rats when I was about 10 and I loved them they were so smart. I have never heard of the Gambia pouched rats. It is to bad they have been brought to this country and let go by breeders or people who just got tired of owning them. Very interesting hub. Voted uP!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and the vote, moonlake. I would love to own a domestic rat, but my home is already full of pets! I agree with you - it's very sad that the problem in Florida was created.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Wow Alicia! Your hubs never cease to amaze me! I had never even heard of Gambian Pouched Rats and to learn about how they can detect land mines and also TB is fascinating. I think I will pass on having one as a pet however. Ha! Voted up, useful, interesting + tweeting and sharing. This is my first lesson for the day on HP and it is a good one. Thanks!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the lovely comment and for all the votes and shares, Peggy!! I find Gambian pouched rats fascinating too, but like you I don't want one as a pet. I think they're lovely animals, though - although some people in Florida may have the opposite opinion!

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Nine litters a year! Who would be a female Gambian Pouched Rat! Interesting and well researched hub as always Alicia. Poor old Florida seems to be becoming a hotspot for invasive species, so although these are wonderful animals, I hope they can keep them under control there.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Cynthia. Nine litters seems to be the maximum number, with most females having a smaller number of litters in a year, but it's still an amazing reproductive rate! I've read that in some areas the rats are frequently caught to provide meat for people, but they aren't endangered because of their great reproductive ability.

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 4 years ago from United States

This is super interesting. I had not ever heard of these rodents. I also did not realize the process of domesticating a species and how many generations it would take. This was full of a lot of information.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Angela. I appreciate your visit and comment!

Mama Kim 8 profile image

Mama Kim 8 3 years ago

Wow, never heard of these... cute?... creatures ^_^ I'm not a rat fan... but these guys are oddly cute to me. Great hub, very interesting! Voting a bunch and pinning.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

That's a good way to describe these animals, Mama Kim 8! They are "oddly cute"! Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the pin.

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    Linda Crampton (AliciaC)1,245 Followers
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    Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

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