...The perfect pet for me!
Since my early childhood, rats are my actual favourite pets.
But for some reasons I still gave up on them:
· I cannot keep mice and pet rats at once, ‘cause that would be unfair to my mice. They would be latently stressed by the presence and/or smell of these natural predators.
· As former laboratory animals, pet rats are unfortunately very prone of tumors, pneumonia and other inherited troubles. And I’m very tired by now of watching many of my favourite pets suffer and die too soon.
· Pet rats will strongly bond with their owner and therefore need more attention than I could give them at the present time.
But I found a great alternative...
African soft-furred rats.
As most ASF owners, I became acquainted with these rodents as feeder animals. This was about ten years ago - I ran out of feeder mice and my reptile store had only soft furs left. I was advised to prekill them before feeding as they were extremely aggressive and therefore too dangerous for my colubrids.
First I thought the salesman was kidding me. How could a small fuzzy animal with such beautiful big eyes and these cute sticky out ears be such a monster? Unfortunately, the salesman was proved right…
This species must be somehow related to Monty Python’s killer bunny ;-)
When kept in poor surroundings, they will develop obsessive-compulsive disorders in no time, e.g. excessive chewing on cage bars and equipment, stereotype behaviours and other behaviour disorders. For feeder breeders, that may not matter much. But that’s definitely not what pet lovers would like to see.
To my experience, ASFs feel most comfortable in a rebuild tall cupboard, the front doors replaced by wire mesh. They seem to feel safer as it is closed from three sides.
The table pyramid on which I keep my mice is not suitable for ASFs since they will jump off any height.
But similar to mice keeping, the surface area must be at least 1m in length for a small group and of course a few levels high as they need to climb. To satisfy their need for digging I offer them some earth filled flower pots and boxes beyond bedding.
The biggest challenge is to satisfy their curiosity every day. As soon as they get bored they’ll constantly try to escape from their cage and get very destructive — and absolutely nothing is safe from their powerful jaws and sharp teeth.
So I try my best to offer them varying kinds of entertainment every day, e.g. closed cartons filled with surprise treats or different kinds of materials, such as straw, paper towel, newspaper,… which they can use to build a nest then.
The trouble is that most ASFs will never be tame enough to let them run around in your room or to even train them outside their cage…
But lets focus on the positive qualities of ASF rats as pets:
A special feature worth mentioning is their social behaviour — ASFs are extremely social and communicative animals. They will tenderly groom each other at any given opportunity, which is really cute to watch! :-)
So, of course, they MUST live in groups and won’t survive long when kept alone.
Even buck-keeping is no problem at all with this species. Assumed that there are no does in heat right next to them ;-), most bucks will live together in perfect harmony!
Many people have been amazed how calm some of my ASF rats are and therefore asked me for advice on taming and training their own.
But I’m afraid this is quite a difficult subject: The character of this species varies tremendously, from extremely nervous, to extremely aggressive. That’s why I can’t give you universal instructions in this matter, but only some basic notes.
And I promise I’ll make the eagerly awaited “How to tame ASFs” video soon, in which I can show you my methods by concrete examples.
And most important:
Never touch an untamed ASF before it touches you! I guess that’s quite obvious for highly aggressive strains anyway, but there’s another reason: When still new, especially timid ASFs might let you touch them. They might even lay down, tilt their head and close their eyes as if they were enjoying it. But they’re probably not!
Under these circumstances, this behavior is a kind of “calming signal”, it means: “I’m afraid of you, I completely submit to you, so please leave me alone!” If you want your new ASFs to trust you and become tame someday, you should accept that and better not annoy them — since ASF rats are the most vindictive animals on earth. ;-)
As soon as they feel more secure and comfortable in their new home, this behavior will usually change into flight or attack.
But to win the trust of your timid ASFs, you can try giving them treats from your hand.
For aggressive animals, this is NOT a good idea and can even make it worse! You should rather reward them for ignoring your hand, e.g. by dropping a treat and/or using a clicker at that moment, not for “stealing” treats from your hand.
I do hand-feed my ASFs from a highly aggressive strain, but not before they are fully tame (which can take several months).
Usually, bucks are clearly calmer than does and have a higher stimulus threshold. Their bites are generally less damaging than that of does, mostly just a single warning nip that doesn’t even break the skin. On the other hand, does often bite very forcefully and in a rapid series, just like a machine gun.
But of course, there are exceptions on both sides. My most gentle ASF rat is a doe named Agnes! And I can’t imagine any situation where Agnes would bite.
...to be continued.
© 2008 mouse-agility.com
ASF rats are also commonly known as natal rats, multimammate mice or praomys, but the scientific genus name is mastomys. There are 8 species which are partly very hard to distinguish and can be interbred with each other, that’s why most ASFs in captivity are hybrids between mastomys natalensis and mastomys coucha.
ASFs are quite popular as feeder animals since they are VERY reproductive, don’t smell at all and even picky eaters seem to like them.
On the contrary, they are almost unknown as pets. That’s probably because of their sometimes very aggressive or/and very nervous behaviour. No surprise since these animals have hardly ever been bred as pets, so their character remained ‘wild’.
But that’s exactly what makes this species so very interesting for me!
But for all that, introducing new ASFs to each other can be quite tricky (depending on their individual temperament) and therefore needs great caution! In proportion to their body size, they have extremely powerful jaws and can badly insure each other!
The picture on the right shows one of my does named Rosi after a small dispute over food with Susi, the highly aggressive alpha doe. Although I intervened after only a few seconds, Susi had already pierced one of Rosi’s ears, deeply slashed her neck and even ripped off(!) her left lip...
So PLEASE do not just put new ASFs together without the advice of an expert keeper! This may go well with some low or non aggressive lines, but in other cases may end fatally!
Btw, Rosi recovered well and doesn’t seem to be bothered by her missing lip. Her and Susi live together without any problems since then.
But such kind of aggression inside a stable group is an exception anyway, cause as I said, this species is extremely social.
ASFs as pets.
Although ASFs will survive under even horrific keeping conditions, e.g. breeder racks, they are very challenging pets!
What makes them so hard to please is their enormous agility, huge curiosity an not least astounding intelligence, which can easily compete with rats.
Another great advantage of ASFs as pets is that they do not smell at all and are generally very clean animals. Usually they defecate and urinate in one corner of their cage and can be easily trained to use a litter box. Especially my does keep their cage perfectly clean. That’s why I just empty their litter box every few days and clean the whole cage not more than every two months!
But what I like most about this species is that they can be well socialized with pet mice, because...
· they are not natural enemies.
· they have similar activity times.
· they have similar alimentary habits.
· they require similar husbandry conditions.
This is well shown e.g. in my recent video tribute to Poldi… as you can see, my mice adored this rat!
My ASF rats seem to benefit a lot from being kept together with mice. They are very caring for them and mother and protect them. ASFs are naturally glowing super-parents to their own pups — but as I hardly ever breed them (they are far too productive as feeders for my colubrids), they enjoy living out their strong maternal instinct on mice. To my experience, species-mixed groups are more balanced and stable.
BUT: As mentioned on the front page, I DO NOT recommend this for inexperienced keepers! ASF rats can and — especially when put in their own territory — some immediately WILL kill a mouse in one single attack! They have to be carefully introduced to each other, just like among their own species.
And not least, ASF rats are very healthy and relatively long-living small rodents. Their difficult temperament has pretty much saved them so far from being used as laboratory animals — as well as from ending up as overbred fancy pets ...or children’s toys.
But for now, here are a few basic rules:
One classic mistake — not only relevant for ASFs — is that people tend to treat nervous animals too much like nervous animals (the same applies to biting ones)! They approach them very carefully and slowly, while looking in their eyes and gently talking to them. But this is completely wrong!
Prey animals are even severely stressed by such careful and slow movements towards them, because that’s exactly how a predator would creep up on them. And aggressive ASFs will definitely attack in this case.
So you should more likely treat your jumpy or aggressive ASFs as if they were already tame. Show them that you are not interested in them at all, don’t look at them, don’t talk to them. Move your hand seemingly randomly around in the cage for a few seconds (NOT recommended with highly aggressive individuals!), sometimes towards the animal, then away again immediately — before(!) it even reacts. This is very important, because otherwise, the learning effect may be the opposite, like: “Fleeing or biting that hand makes it go away — great! I will do this again and again!”
Taming and training ASFs.
These are my African soft furs Pauli and Puck enjoying their cuddles. Believe it or not — they are not sedated in any way!
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