DECEMBER
2007

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

12-27-07

Hissing Cockroaches not Warm-and-Fuzzy Pets

It's a good bet that very few insects ended up as Christmas gifts. This year, as in years past, arthropods, joint-footed creatures, including insects, spiders, and crayfish, were probably not high on many Christmas wish lists.

To be sure, animals are popular gift items, but most are of a warm-and-fuzzy kind, or at least feathered. Dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils and even rats, more or less, are considered warm-and-fuzzy pets. Feathered creatures aren't real nice to pet, but parakeets, parrots, canaries and finches are considered pets anyway.

A few animals that definitely are not warm-and-fuzzy are kept as pets. Sometimes. We are talking about cold-blooded animals that are covered with scales or exoskeletons. Many people have trouble bonding with such creatures as a snake, lizard, turtle, tarantula or an insect. So these animals are not real popular pets. And the least popular of all is no doubt an insect.

To be sure, many young children have, at one time or another, tried to keep an insect as a pet. A caterpillar from a tree in the lawn, a praying mantid caught walking across the window screen or even a beetle discovered under a rotten log. A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh wrote a poem in 1927 about a young girl who had a pet beetle. The beetle, named "Alexander," had a matchbox as a home. At least, the beetle lived there until accidentally let out by the girl's nanny. In 1970 the poem became a popular song recorded by Melanie.

Of all the insects in the world, the species most likely to end up as a pet is Gromphadorhina portentosa. My friends, that insect is a cockroach! Not any old cockroach, mind you, but the largest cockroach species in the world by weight. Of course, a two-ounce cockroach as animals go is not really large. But this cockroach is larger than smallest mammal, a vole, and the smallest bird, the hummingbird. This species of roach is known as the "Madagascar hissing cockroach," since it is native to Madagascar and makes a hissing sound to discourage predators.

As you might suspect, most humans would just as soon not have a cockroach of any ilk in their home, even if it is a pet. But these large roaches have managed to overcome the human aversion to living with roaches and show up in pet stores, along with more traditional pet animals. Why a cockroach has become the insect pet of choice needs a bit of explanation.

These roaches have become a fairly common laboratory animal used to teach biology in classrooms from elementary to college level and are commonly displayed at zoos and museums. As insects go, Madagascar roaches are long-lived, some for three to four years. In addition, Madagascar roaches do not produce the odor so characteristic of other roaches.

A cockroach, like any other pet, will require water and food. And a cage to keep the insect confined, since it won't come when you call it. What about food? Cockroaches living in the wild feed on dead plant and animal material. Dry dog or cat food or laboratory rat chow work very well as food for a pet roach. A slice of apple or a bit of lettuce can be used as a special treat.

The best part of having a cockroach for a pet is that you don't have to have a pet sitter when you are away. Just make sure food and water are available, and the insect will do quite well in your absence.

Another nice thing about a pet roach is that nature has equipped these animals to survive under adverse conditions. So unlike other pets, even if you forget to provide food and water for your pet roach, it can survive for some time. And you don't have to take your Madagascar roach for walks, take it to the vet for shots or have it groomed. What's not to like about a pet like that?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox