The Art of Darkness

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches as Pets

June 4th, 2015 by Cobwebs

Hissing CockroachWe here at Shadow Manor are a pet-friendly group, and in the past I’ve mentioned critters like bearded dragons and rats as being excellent pets which are relatively low-maintenance, don’t require a lot of space, and are rather gothy to boot. We’ve recently, rather by accident, expanded into the invertebrate category, and I am here to tell you about the awesomeness that is Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.

You may have encountered these guys before; they’re hardy and very easy to care for, making them popular insect exhibits at zoos, museums, and the little invertebrate sideshows that a lot of pesticide companies seem to sponsor. They’re also often raised as food for insect-eating pets such as lizards and birds, which is what I originally bought mine for: I was mail-ordering mealworms for my lizard and noticed that the same company sold roaches, so I ordered a few for him to try. When they arrived I decided that they were: a) Probably a bit too big for the lizard to eat, and b) Really fricking cool, so I decided to keep them as pets instead.*

They have a lot to recommend them: Unlike common household roaches, these guys are clean, gentle forest dwellers. They don’t bite or sting, and they’re wingless. They don’t stink up their enclosure the way some insects (like crickets) do, and they’re ridiculously low-maintenance. They’re quiet and require very little space. They’re an attractive bug, with a carapace that resembles polished mahogany (when they molt, they’re briefly a lovely, creamy ivory with shockingly-noticeable black eyespots). They’re also really big, which makes them fun to watch and is also handy for education: I plan to use mine to help some local Boy Scouts earn their “insect” merit badge. Also, since they live peaceably in a large colony, you can easily breed them for lizard food.

Their hissing, incidentally, is very cool. When the adults are disturbed they hiss like a teakettle, and it’s a little startling until you get used to it. One of mine likes to hang on the roof of the cage, and any nearby movement will make him give a warning hiss. I rather like the experience of walking past an aquarium and having something hiss at me from the shadows. Makes me feel like Morticia Addams.

The minimum you’ll need to raise hissers successfully is a enclosure with a tight-fitting lid (they can climb walls and are strong enough to push a lightweight lid aside), a few places to hide, a water source, and some food (more on that below). If possible, you should also give them some kind of substrate material: The substrates found in the reptile section of the pet store such as coconut husk or shredded bark work well (don’t use pine or cedar shavings). They also need to be kept warm–in their natural habitat daytime temperatures are around 80-90F–and although they’ll survive at lower temperatures they won’t be as comfortable, which means they won’t be as active and may not breed.

I set my roaches up in a 25-gallon glass aquarium with a metal mesh lid that my lizard had outgrown. Since I wanted a sort of jungle-y environment, I mounded some potting soil in one corner and planted a couple of stalks of bamboo (found at my local pet store in the exotics section); roaches will nibble on plants so I wanted to avoid anything with tender stems. The rest of the cage floor was covered with shredded cypress bark, also from the pet store; you don’t want to use soil for the whole cage, since it’s harder to keep clean. The substrate needs to be changed out occasionally (the frequency depends on the size of the colony), and that’s a lot easier to do with bark or mulch. I set up several hiding places: A small half-log and several pieces of driftwood (both of which I happened to have, but available in the small animal section of the pet store), a couple of rocks, and, to complete the jungle atmosphere, a fishtank decoration I found on clearance that looks like a Mayan pyramid. It’s hollow and has a small doorway so the roaches can hide inside of it, plus when they crawl around on the outside it looks like some freaky alternate universe where giant insects rule the world.

For heat, I set up a dome lamp with a heat-only reptile basking bulb; since the bulb doesn’t give off light, it still provides warmth at night but lets them roam comfortably in the dark. The 150W bulb is enough to keep the enclosure a toasty 85F by itself, but with a smaller bulb or a larger cage it might be necessary to use a secondary heat source like a tank heater designed for reptiles. Since they’re tropical insects they like a little bit of moisture; I spray the bamboo shoots with water every few days, which helps keep the cage humid.

Adult roaches can drink water out of a shallow dish but nymphs can drown, so it’s easier to provide water in the form of a sponge that you keep damp or (what I use) water gel crystals. I just put some of those in a small dish and replenish as necessary. The food is similarly easy: Their staple is dry dog food, which provides protein and fat, and every couple of days I feed them fresh fruits veggies: Leafy greens, a little bit of cut-up apple, or (their very favorite) carrots. Holy Moses, do roaches like carrots. (If you don’t use organic produce, be sure to peel fruits and vegetables and thoroughly wash greens; your roaches are insects and are thus vulnerable to pesticides.)

If you want to breed them, you’ll have to make sure that you have roaches of both sexes. The original batch I got were all female, so I had to score some males. Fortunately, Rainbow Mealworms** was kind enough to let me specify which sex I wanted, so my final colony consists of three males and eight females. Incidentally, it’s really easy to sex hissing cockroaches; the males have two bumps on their heads which they use for fighting (they just kind of…bop each other with their heads until one of them backs off), and the females have a smooth head. The Dragonfly Woman has a post about hissers which includes a photo of each sex, so you can see how obvious the difference is.

The males are mildly territorial, and although they won’t injure each other when fighting it’s still nice to give them enough room so they each have their own little patch of ground to claim. The males won’t harm females or nymphs, so it’s fine to keep the whole colony in one cage.

Roaches can be found at some pet stores and are widely available for mail-order online (with some restrictions: They’re illegal in Florida, for instance, since they have the potential to escape and become invasive). If you’re in the US I’d recommend Rainbow Mealworms as a source, and you can google “hissing cockroaches for sale” to find other vendors. They’re pleasantly inexpensive for a pet, costing approximately $1 per roach.

Shadowboy with RoachHissers are a good pet for beginners, and since they’re harmless and low-maintenance they’re also a great choice for a classroom pet. Kids are fascinated by them, doubly so because they look so creepy and badass but are totally harmless. (That’s Shadowboy, showing off his roach-wrangling skills with “Feature.”)

For further reading, Aqualand has a basic care guide with lots of photos, and Bugs in Cyberspace has some additional advice. Oklahoma State University has a really good guide which includes tips on using the roaches for education. PetCo has a care sheet with a handy checklist for necessary supplies (although their health “red flags” are not particularly useful. I…don’t know how I’d tell if my roach was losing weight).

If you’re looking for an unusual but easy-to-care-for pet, I can’t recommend these guys highly enough. They really are a fun addition to the menagerie.

*Man, the pet care instructions we leave for our house-sitter when we go on vacation this summer are going to be hilarious.

**Incidentally, I can’t recommend this company highly enough. They are extremely friendly and responsive, sell a wide variety of feeder insects, and also sell supplies like the water gel crystals and mealworm bran. I’ve switched over to ordering all of my lizard food from them.

Posted in Resources | 3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. Devries Says:

    I once saw an 18 inch millipede
    in a pet store a while back. It was interesting but they wanted way too much money for it.

  2. Sisifo Says:

    My cousin had a tarantula named Sexy and she’d always let us play with the cockroaches before she fed him. They’re pretty fun.

  3. xJane Says:

    Last night, I came home and sat down on my couch and heard this coming from under/behind it. I have still not figured out what caused it. Maybe one of these.

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