Data from Jazmyn Concolor, from personal research on this species (gathered from talks with breeders and observation)
General: These rats can make wonderful pets. They are intelligent, social
and can be very gentle if handled from an early age. They play-wrestle like domestic
rats and many seem to love to be cuddled, petted and pampered. They seem attracted
to shiny objects and will try to remove jewelry and watches. I've heard of one
that has a stuffed toy lion it sleeps and plays with, oddly enough without chewing
it to pieces like a domestic rat would. With a little introduction, they accept
the attentions of strangers and are good candidates for educational programs using
exotic animals. Both males and females make good pets, though its not a good idea
to attempt to keep more then one male, unless you are an experienced breeder and
know how to handle them, since the males are territorial. Females don't seem to
have this problem for the most part. Their eyesight is terrible and they depend
a lot on smell and hearing, thus you have to be aware of this and take care not
to have 'smells' on your hands or clothing that might confuse them. Males are
more vocal then females, often greeting their owners with squeaks, chirps, churrs
and other strange noises, often sounding almost like a raccoon at times.
They are not pets for everyone, requiring patience and understanding of their habits. They grow to the size of a small cat and cannot be 'punished' like cats or dogs when they do something wrong, requiring more gentle means, such as tone of voice (a loud OUCH when a baby nips too hard can make them pause, much like when a rat nips another in play too hard and the nipped one SQUEAKS and moves away (or nips back, except as humans we are not equipped to do this), ending play!) and behavioral methods, working around their natural behavior. Remember while they are common pets in So. Africa and growing in popularity in the US, they have not been bred in captivity for long and have many 'wild' behaviors you have to be prepared for.
They also go through a period of time when they reach sexual maturity at 5-7 months of age, where they sometimes become territorial, becoming nervous and prone to nipping people they are not closely bonded to..Many grow out of this phase, some might not and would become 'one owner pets', making it very hard to find a new home for one, so think carefully before getting one as a pet. Observing their body language and behavior is a good way to learn to judge their mood. Much like one might learn to anticipate a cats mood by body language. Raised fur and nervously twitching ears, plus lunging at the people through the cage wire is a obvious sign they want to be left alone by that person..Chirping or squeaking with lowered head and almost submissive behavior often is a sign they want attention.
As they are now illegal to import from some parts of Africa, captive bred giant
rats are the majority of what is available. Buy from a reliable breeder and ask
to see the parents if possible as there are some breeders who are not culling
out animals with poor temperaments from their breeding animals and this is causing
a rise in unstable animals in the pet market which in turn is begining to give
the giant pouched rat a bad name. Beware of buying from questionable sources,
since there have been a few illegal imports of these rats. Wild caught and illegally
imported animals may carry parasites or dangerous viruses, since they have NOT
been quarantined or tested before entering the country. Stick with USDA licensed
breeders only or pet shops that can tell you where the animals came from. A USDA
permit is required for breeding and selling, but not for owning as pets. Some
states, counties and cities may also require permits as well. They are illegal
in some states, such as California
and require nearly impossible to obtain permits, though due to the wording of
the regulations in CA , this might be in question if the giant rats happened to
be laboratory-reared or albinos? This is one to ask a lawyer about however...(grin)
Food: A good mixture of fancy rat grain mix (the kind with little or no alfalfa pellets), fancy parrot mix, good quality lab blocks, Iams puppy or cat food, monkey chow blocks (in limited quantity, no more then one in a week due to very high protein and fat level), corn on the cob (dried or fresh), dandelion greens, avocado (they LOVE this!), dates, prunes, figs, nuts, pumpkin seeds, almost any kind of fruit (at least one or more kinds of fruit offered daily), most vegetables (avoid iceberg lettuce or low nutrient veggies), cooked meats (to avoid salmonella, don't feed raw meat, except very fresh saltwater fish/crab/snails in small amounts), insects (such as crickets, meal worms and wax worms - Note: Not all giant rats will eat these. It seems to be an individual taste thing) and low sodium whole grain bread (in limited amounts) Mangos seem to be well liked and breadfruits (if you can locate them).
Oriental grocery stores are good source of veggies, fruits, fresh seafood and such not normally found in regular grocery stores. I've even found palm fruit, though its in heavy syrup and too much sugar can't be all that good, so only limited amounts should be fed. Feeding a varied diet is best for both the health of the animal and because not everything is known yet about a balanced diet for them. Experience with many kinds of animals has shown that with a blend of healthy foods, animals will tend to eat what they need.
Common sense is a good guide... Overall they require more protein and fatty acids (like the omega fatty acids) then domestic rats. The domestic rat requires a low protein/fat diet and cannot eat a lot of nutmeats due to skin eruptions. Giant rats are more costly to feed and require more work on your part to see to their dietary needs, often to the point where you find yourself looking for interesting new fruits or veggies to offer them. Its almost like feeding a primate in a way. A diet of nothing but lab blocks and grain will not keep them healthy.
Do NOT feed chocolate, fried foods, salted foods, candy or junk food that isn't even good for people.
Since these animals come from a fairly humid environment, if you live in a dry area or have low humidity, the addition of fish or fish oil high in fatty acids helps the skin, plus the use of a humidifier in the room the animals are kept in. Ringtail can be a problem with giant pouched rats in low humidity environments, primarily with pre weaned babies.
Vitamins like Nutri-Cal are a good addition to their diet and added calcium during nursing and growth due to demands on their systems at those times. Don't overdo the vitamins, since too much can be detrimental to their health, rather then helpful.
Fresh water should be made available at all times. They do use water bottles and don't seem to have a much a problem with chewing on the bottles as domestic rats.
Ceramic food dishes work well, but they will horde food in their nests. Remove spoiled food from nest as often as possible.
Enrichment: Toys or other enrichment items should be introduced from time to time to keep them from developing nervous habits from boredom. I've found wooden parrot toys to be perfect for the cage. Avoid plastic since these are rodents and may chew on them and ingest the plastic. Giving them an area to play in or letting them romp on the bed (if you can handle washing sheets if they pee on it) is good, but don't let them run loose unsupervised as they are rodents and can chew through electric cords and other things that could result in injury or death.
Enclosures: Cages should be of the multi level ferret/chinchilla type available. Must have solid, not wire shelves as GRs feet are sensitive and they don't like walking on wire..Floor of cage should be solid as well. Coated, powered wire is best, since their urine will rust galvanized steel quickly. You can build your own enclosure, but do not use wood unless it is well covered by sheet metal to avoid chewing. It is NOT a good idea to allow them to run loose in the house like a cat or dog, since they are rodents and WILL chew on things if not watched closely. Supervised play in the house is fine, but beware of anything that might cause injury to them such as recliner chairs, uncovered electrical cords, other pets, etc.
Bedding: Do not bed on pine or cedar, use aspen (chips or pellets), processed paper animal bedding or straw pellets (Critter Country Reptile Bedding).
Provide with shredded paper towels (no dyes or perfumes) or clean, white, non-perfumed/scented tissue for bedding. They will tend to pile these in a corner and sleep on them, plus hide food there. Remove soiled bedding as needed. Clean enclosure regularly. Wipe down with disinfectant such as Parvosol.
Health: These rats can catch upper respiratory viruses from domestic rats, but are generally more resistant. However, if they do catch KRV or Corona, they don't always respond to antibiotics as well as domesticated fancy rats. They can get tumors as well. There is no evidence of zoonoisis or illnesses that humans can get from them yet, but there is not a lot of research on them yet. There is no evidence they are a rabies vector, but then most rodents other then ground squirrels are not known to be a rabies vector. It is a good idea to have your pet checked over by a good exotic vet for general health and have a stool sample checked for internal parasites (things like pinworms are rare, but possible). They are also more prone to ringtail, which can be treated, but the tail is often left scared or in bad cases will drop off or require amputation by a vet. Remember they need higher humidity then domestic rats. For ringtail I use a mixture of lanolin, aloe vera and vitamin E, plus adding fish or fish oils to the diet, along with other foods that are helpful to dry skin conditions.
Handling: These rats can be very affectionate, rewarding pets. Intelligent and playful, they often act very much like domestic rats, to the point where their behavior seems almost like any domestic animal. They do however still have natural instincts and will react to fast movements and loud noises. If handled often and gently, they often will start to lose this sensitivity and can become very predicable and steady, thus making them a good choice for educational animals. Babies can be a little nippy, but will quickly learn not to nip with patience and most often the baby nips are not hard enough to break the skin and are more a play or curiosity thing. Most seem to like being rubbed behind the ears or be petted, though some will tend to want to explore and may not want to hold still or be cuddled. Others love to be cuddled and snuggled. Most are 'licky' and will lick your hand when handled and often other peoples hands if introduced. Educational animals should be introduced to a variety of people so they don't impress on only one person too much.
Individuals often have temperament differences, but it seems overall that they tend towards being gentle and good natured. Some will gently use their teeth without biting to push your hand away or pull it closer. Don't panic and jerk your hand or you may cut your finger on their teeth. Some give warning nips what are hard enough to pinch, but not cut the skin when they want to be set down or left alone. Many dislike having the contents of the cage moved around and get a little fussy, gathering up things and putting them back where they want them.. Their behaviors are a lot like domestic rats, except they are more intelligent and sensitive. The marking or 'peeing on everything' habit seen in domestic rats seems more controlled in giant rats, though males often rub their cheeks against objects like a cat to scent mark. Many will only pee or poop in their cage if able to get to it when they need to go. Some will act like they want down when they need to go and when placed in their cage, they will go, then beg to be picked up again. Like ferrets, they tend to back into corners to poop and pee, thus they can likely be housebroken like ferrets. I've not personally tried myself or heard of anyone trying it, but it seems it wouldn't be too hard.
Babies should be handled from about a week or so before their eyes open to get them used to human scent early, thus helping them bond early. Mom can be transferred to a holding cage while her babies are being handled in case she gets jealous. Caution: Mom might try to bite, thinking her babies are being threatened, so its best to distract her while taking her firmly by the base of the tail, near the body, to lift and move her to a new cage while you are playing with the babies. Do not lift by the end of the tail as the skin will come off in your hand, resulting in a rat you will have to take to the vet to remove the dammaged part of the tail. You will also have a very large, upset giant rat to calm down...
Unlike domestic rats, they have cheek pouches like a hamster and small items sometimes get picked up and stuffed in their pouch when you least expect it...Even your finger with some babies. Gently discourage baby from chewing or nibbling on your finger too hard and encourage licking instead. All baby animals go through a stage where everything goes into their mouth and rats are no different. Even domestic rats go through a 'baby nibble' stage.
CAUTION: Males are very territorial and may bite you if you have handled another male before handling the next one. Wash hands with soap between handling grown males and take care their scent isn't on your clothes as well. Do NOT attempt to keep males together since they can and often will fight to the death. Neutered males raised together or males raised together where there are no females nearby have been successful, but its often best not to tempt fate. Giant Rats who either have not been handled much or may be untrustworthy during times of high stress or over-protective nursing mothers can be moved (during cage cleaning or whatever reason there may be to move them) by grasping the tail near the body and lifting them in this manner to place them in a new enclosure or holding cage, much like is done to domestic rats when trying to move a stressed rat to a new cage. If door of the cage is too small to safely do this, one can often lure them out with a favorite food.
Breeding: Remember! At this time a USDA permit is required for breeding. States, counties and local government may also have restrictions or require permits. Giant Rats reach sexual maturity at 5 months, but often don't reach full growth till 7-8 months old, so its best to wait till they are at least 6-8 months old before breeding, so as to not put undue strain on a young female who is still growing and might suffer health risks if bred too soon. Their gestation period is 27-36 days, usually 30-32 days with 1-5 in the litter. Eyes open at around 22 days old, unlike regular pet rats who's eyes open at around 10 days. Males can be kept with females during the time they are nursing without problems, but since there are always some animals who's temperaments might vary, watch for any signs of fighting and separate if you need to. Most breeders seem to establish pairs early and keep the same pair together all the time. Give the female plenty of shredded towels or shredded tissue for bedding during this time. Unless you are very familiar with the females habits and temperament during nursing, don't try to handle the babies for at least the first week. I've not heard of problems with them eating their babies, but its not good to stress out the mother too much. . Babies can be weaned as early as 5 weeks, but its best to let them nurse for up to 7-8 weeks since early weaning can cause problems like poor bone development. Offer Nutri-Cal during pregnancy and nursing, plus to growing weaned babies. Growing babies need more calcium as well, since giant rats grow very large in a short time, thus they need proper nutrition during this time more then any other. Reptile vitamins for iguanas work well, but just a pinch every few days is fine.
If the humidity is low, provide a humidifier in the room or ringtail might result. Be cautious with new mothers, as with ALL new mother animals, they may become very protective during this time.
Other Pets: It is most likely not a good idea to keep them around other pets. Some people have successfully kept them from a young age with domestic rats. Dogs and cats tend to not deal well with rodents. Ferrets are a natural enemy of rodents and a giant rat could seriously injure a ferret, who is in fact smaller then a grown giant pouched rat. Reptiles could be viewed as food by them (or visa-versa), as well as fish, so its not a good idea to introduce them. This does also depend on individual pets and some might be able to get along with each other. Since there is no data yet from anyone who has tried, except with domestic rats, it would be wise to take the safe route and not put your giant rat with other animals. NEVER place any species of rats unsupervised with other species of animals, unless you are a professional animal breeder using a nursing domestic rat female for fostering orphaned small animals and know the proper way to introduce them.
Rat and Mouse Gazette (RMCA Newsletter) (sept/oct 1995) Article; Monster in the Closet by Sue Smythe.
Exotic Market Review (Oct 1996) Article; The Giant Pouched Rat.
Hogle Zoo: Salt Lake City, Utah (talked with keeper) (unnamed)
USDA certified breeders in Florida, Arizona, etc.
USDA Animal Welfare (For questions regarding permits for breeding)