Guide to Gerbils as Pets

Mongolian Gerbil, large eyes, large back feet, pale fur for desert camouflage, sitting on rock, side view.
Agouti colored gerbil sitting on a rock. Frank Greenaway/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Gerbils aren't as popular as they used to be but they are still prevalent in pet stores and homes with children and adults alike. 

Names: Meriones unguiculatus, Mongolian gerbil, gerbil, desert rat, clawed jird

Lifespan: 2-3 years on average but up to 8 is reported

Size: Body is about 4 inches long, tail another 4 inches

Gerbil Appearance

Gerbils are fairly small rodents with long furry tails that have a little tuft of fur at the end (but you should never pick a gerbil up by their tail). The wild type coloration is referred to as "agouti" color where each hair is banded with gray, yellowish, and black, with off-white hair on the belly. However, through selective breeding, several lovely color variations are available including white, black, and gold. Unlike a mouse or hamster, they can often be seen sitting up on their hind legs.

Gerbil Personalities

Mongolian gerbils are not nocturnal although they are sometimes active at night. They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours. They are very curious and will explore anything so they can be quite entertaining to watch.

Gerbils are also very social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so they do not do well as a solitary pet. Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is necessary. However, if you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one as they are quite territorial but there are steps that can be taken.

Being social creatures, gerbils can become quite tame. They generally have a pretty agreeable temperament and are generally only inclined to bite if feeling threatened which is how they became popular as pets to begin with. Hand taming a gerbil is usually quite easy and treats definitely help to speed the process.

Housing Gerbils

For a pair of gerbils, a cage of about 12 inches by 24 inches by 12 inches tall is a good minimum size, but since gerbils are active, a larger cage is always better. Glass aquariums can be used and are favored over wire cages by many owners. Aquariums allow a deep layer of bedding so the gerbils can burrow, a behavior that is often overlooked in pet gerbils. A secure mesh lid is necessary to prevent escapes and allow ventilation. Wire cages can be used for gerbils but gerbils do have a tendency to kick the bedding out between the wires when they burrow which makes a mess. Gerbils also sometimes chew on the wire cages resulting in sores on their noses and injured teeth. For wire cages, the bar spacing should be no more than 1/2 inch but beware that any wire cages may cause legs to get stuck. Plastic cages do not hold up to the chewing habits of gerbils plus they do not provide adequate ventilation.

A fairly thick (2-3 inches) layer of bedding in the cage provides a good base and allows the gerbils to dig a bit. Avoid cedar or pine shavings. Aspen is fine to use but most owners prefer one of the many kinds of paper bedding such as Carefresh.

Nesting material that the gerbils can shred and use to line their nests is also a good idea. The nesting material sold in pet stores is not ideal for this as little feet can get entangled in the strands. It is better to use simple white facial tissue which you can shred into strips for the gerbils, paper towels and/or grass hay.

Gerbils also need a nest box to feel secure. Gerbils will hide out in their nest box and use it for sleeping. A sturdy wood or ceramic nest box is preferable to plastic since the plastic will quickly be destroyed by chewing. The wood will likely get chewed as well but tends to last a little longer. Clay flower pots are another possible choice to use as a gerbil nest box.

In addition to offering a nest box, provide lots of materials for climbing and enrichment, such as thick pieces of wood, stable rocks, ladders, ramps and platforms. Toys that are safe for chewing should always be available. Wood toys or simple blocks of wood, branches, hay, wood and rope parrot toys, and small cardboard boxes are all good choices for chewing. Toilet paper tubes, though quickly destroyed, will likely be a favorite toy.

A water bottle, with a metal spout, can be hung on the cage. A fresh supply of water should always be available. Heavy ceramic food dishes are the best choice since they are harder to tip over than a plate or lightweight bowl.

You can consider getting an exercise wheel but get one with a solid surface to prevent injuries (some owners modify the typical hamster style wheel by applying tape over the wheel to provide a solid surface). There should be no place in an exercise wheel for your gerbil to get their tail stuck in.

Feeding Gerbils

Gerbil diets should consist of a formulated gerbil food. These are typically loose seed mixtures that also include rodent blocks. Try to avoid sunflower seed mixtures and reserve those, as well as Cheerios and Rice Krispies, as treats. Look for a packaged diet that has 10.5-12% protein and 4-7% fat in it.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT