Introduction and Background

Scientific Name: Cricetomys gambianus (Cricetomys emin for Emin’s Pouched Rats)
Common names: Gambian rats, African pouched rats, African giant rats, Gambian pouched rats, Gambian giant pouched rats, Emin’s Pouched Rats.
Life span: up to 8 years
Size: Gambian pouched rats can reach a total length of 30 inches or more
Weight: Between 1.5 and 2kg (Lower end for Emin’s)
Distribution: Africa, wide distribution south of the Sahara desert down to northern South Africa

African Pouched Rats

The Term ‘African Pouched Rats’ covers 2 specieis of known muroid which lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

These species are the ‘Gambian Pouched Rat’ (Cricetomys gambianus) and the Emin’s Pouched Rat (Cricetomys emin)

A lot of confussion arises from these two species as to most people, they could be the same animal. They are likley the result of speciation from a common ancestor. Although there is no natural or human barriers seperating the specieis in the wild, it is likely a result of specialisms developed through their slightly different habbitats.

The Gambian pouched Rat

The Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), also known as the African giant pouched rat, is a nocturnal pouched rat of the giant pouched rat genus Cricetomys, and is among the largest muroids in the world, growing up to about 0.9 metres (3 ft) long including their tail which makes up half their length. It is widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging geographically from Senegal to Kenya and from Angola to Mozambique (although it is absent from much of the DR Congo, where Emin’s pouched rat is present) and in altitude from sea level to 2,000 metres (6,600 ft).

The Gambian pouched rat has very poor eyesight and so depends on its senses of smell and hearing. Its name comes from the large, hamster-like pouches in its cheeks. It is not a true rat but is part of an African branch of muroid rodents. It typically weighs between 1 and 1.4 kilograms (2.2 and 3.1 lb). In its native Africa, the pouched rat lives in colonies of up to twenty, usually in forests and thickets, but also commonly in termite mounds. It is omnivorous, feeding on vegetables, insects, crabs, snails and other items, but apparently preferring palm fruits and palm kernels.

The Emin’s Pouched Rat.

Also native to Africa and share some regions, although mainly found along the edges of forests and along the plains. Emin’s rats are actually better climbers than their Gambian pouched rat cousins.

Emin’s rat and the Gambian rat have a few very noticeable physical differences:

  • Emin’s rat has a distinct line of color difference between their lower abdomen area and upper body. The abdomen is grey/white, whereas their upper body is dark brown. The tail has a white tip to it. Gambian rats have a greyish-brown color that is fairly uniform throughout their body, only gradually getting lighter on their abdomen.
  • Emin’s rats are very sleek in appearance. They’re quite slender looking, and are excellent climbers. Gambians are somewhat bulky and chunky in comparison.
  • Emin’s rats tend to weigh less and be slightly smaller than the Gambian rat. Sometimes by as much as 500g

Interbreeding Issues

One of the initial problems when both Gambian Pouched Rats and Emin’s Pouched Rats were introduced to the pet trade, is due to their simuarity, many ‘experienced’ breeders could not tell them apart and tried to sexually pair the two species.

Reports of them having had successful litters has been known but the kits are normally very sickly and will not always live with long, if past the age of weaning.

As with many specieis as a result of speciation, the two types of African Pouched Rat have not been seperately long enough to completely remove breeding compatibility but long enough to cause genetic issues.

Characteristics of an African Pouched Rat

Unlike domestic rats, it has cheek pouches like a hamster. These cheek pouches allow it to gather up several kilograms of nuts per night for storage underground. It has been known to stuff its pouches so full of date palm nuts so as to be hardly able to squeeze through the entrance of its burrow. The burrow consists of a long passage with side alleys and several chambers, one for sleeping and the others for storage. The African Pouched Rat reaches sexual maturity at 5–7 months of age. It has up to four litters every nine months, with up to six offspring in each litter. Males are territorial and tend to be aggressive when they encounter one another.

Pouched Rats as Pets

Most of the experience especially within Europe is via Gambian Pouched Rats. Emin’s have barely been kept as a known species in Europe and are pretty much unknown in the UK. Much of the care and advise however applies to both Species.

Keeping a Pouched Rat as a pet is a tale of two halfs. Many people assume that a Pouched Rat is much like a large Fancy Rat, which is not true.

Pouched Rats are much more confident than their fancy cousins. Their personallity is a lot more strong willed. Being a semi-wild pet, they are not predictable in the same sense of a fully domesticated animal.

Breeders have been doing the upmost for years, to breed a consistant behavour and personality into pet African Pouched Rats. While this has been semi-successful there is still many good and bad cases.

Every Pouched Rat is different and no two will ever be the same.

In cases where a Pouched Rat has been purchased from a good quality, preferably NPRS member. They should know the personality of the baby before you take it home.

Like many exotics and parrots. Pouched Rats will normally bond to one person. In many cases, this has seems to be the female of the household. Pouched rats live in matriarchal societies where by males only come into a group to mate, females will all be related and only one female at the top will tend to mate. This behavour lends itself to pet pouched rats who will bond to whom they perceve is the “head of the house”

The day to day life of owning a Pouched Rat is both tiring and rewarding. They require a good run, normally around 2 hours of one to one time per day, with as much space as you can give them. They need to be watched closely during this time, they can be destructive, nosey and playful. Compare it to how you would need to watch a small child if they were crawling round the house.

Pouched Rat sleep for an extrodintate length of time, normally between 18 and 20 hours of various types of sleep. This will normally be between the daytime, meaning a Pouched Rat is awake and looking for attension just as us humans are thinking about bed.

To accomidate this, it could mean changing your own routine to suit them. A good routine, would be play time between 9pm and 11pm. That would be times when they are most active and you will get the best quality interaction from them.

Forcing them to change their routine and getting them up earlier will usually not work. Reports of people having early morning time has been known with Pouched Rats more willing to adapt to a early morning run than an early evening or daytime.

Pouched Rats live a long time, compared to most domestic animals, their life span is more akin to that of a Dog or Cat and owners should be prepared for this. They need a good quality run for 2 hours every day, 365 days a year, for 8 – 9 years. It’s a lot to provide to an animal, especially if the Pouched Rat hasnt bonded to anyone and is quite alouf with the entire household. Their needs must come first beyond even your own.

Rehoming a Pouched Rat is something many owners do not plan for. Pouched Rats do not do well being rehomed, especially if they have bonded to an owner. Pulling them out of the place the reconganise and have spent years learning their way around, can leave them with behavoural issues of which sometimes they never recover from.

Being able to provide a stable, consistant and predictable routine for a Pouched Rat for its entire life is ideal and makes for a happy pouchie.