Gambian Pouched Rats: Exotic Pets and an Invasive Species

Updated on February 22, 2017
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Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

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

Interesting and Helpful Animals

Gambian pouched rats are interesting animals. They are sometimes kept as exotic pets and can become very affectionate, although the temperament of individual animals 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, the animals 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.

Ben: A Young Gambian Pouched Rat

The Animals in Their Native Habitat

The scientific name of the Gambian pouched rat is Cricetomys gambianus. Strangely, although the rodents are common animals and are caught for food by many people, not very much is known about their lives in the wild. They 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 rodents move in. Pouched rats are adaptable animals and migrate to other areas if these are more desirable or if their original habitat is damaged.

The animals 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.

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

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

Reproduction

Gambian pouched rats are prolific breeders. Females can have their first litter at around five months. 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 have no hair. A litter consists of one to six pups but generally contains four babies. The animals live for about six to eight years.

Pan: An African Giant Pouched Rat

Exotic Pets

Although Gambian pouched rats are bred in captivity, they aren't domesticated animals. It takes a long period of selective breeding to fully domesticate a wild animal. The rodents need to be socialized and trained from a very early age. 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 pets. The animals can't be left in a cage continuously. 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.

Thistle: A Pet Animal

Cage, Fun, and Food

Pouched rats like to run, jump, and climb. Their cage needs to be large and have lots of toys arranged at different levels. An animal 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. Pouched rats have a low body fat content and get cold quickly, so they need to be kept warm.

Animals kept as pets eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, and meats, as well as eggs. A pet's breeder should be consulted about a suitable diet for a particular animal. The rodents like to dig into the litter at the bottom of the cage and store food there as well.

Gambian pouched rats usually back into a corner of their cage to urinate and defecate. Owners say that the animals can be potty trained, using a dish partially filled with water as a toilet. Their litter still needs to be cleaned regularly because it may contain decaying food.

An Emin's Pouched Rat Using a Toilet

Cautions and Potential Problems

Gambian pouched rats have large and strong teeth. They love to chew and can be very destructive. Although pet animals 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 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.

Hero Rats

Land Mine Protection

APOPO is an organization started by a Belgian man named Bart Weetjens. His goal is to train Gambian pouched rats to save human lives by detecting land mines and tuberculosis. The rodents 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. 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.

While surveying an area for land mines, a pouched 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 rodent 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.

A Gambian pouched rat searching for mines
A Gambian pouched rat searching for mines | Source

Tuberculosis Detection

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

A Pouched Rat Being Trained to Detect Land Mines

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 rodents 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 pouched rat population seemed to have disappeared. In 2011, however, reports of live animals appeared. The reports continued into 2012. Another attack was mounted. Once again it seemed like the battle against the animals 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 animals 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.

An Emin's Pouched Rat Eating Cookies

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 Gambian pouched 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.

References

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I think they're cute, too! Thanks for the comment, GalaxyRat.

    • GalaxyRat profile image

      GalaxyRat 6 months ago from The Crazy Rat Lady's House

      I might get one... so cute.

      I have rats already, but not a pouched rat. Thanks for the info.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Angela. I appreciate your visit and comment!

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 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
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 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.

      Eddy.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Melissa A Smith!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 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.

    • ivanmarginal profile image

      ivanmarginal 5 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.

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 5 years ago from New York

      Interesting. Very comprehensive.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 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!

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