Gerbils are popular pets and, like hamsters, are small, inexpensive, and easy to care for. Gerbils are actually burrowing rodents that come from Africa and Asia. While there are several species of gerbils in the wild, most pets are captive bred Mongolian gerbils. While many people do enjoy gerbils as pets, they are unfortunately not ideal for very young children as they can be injured if squeezed or dropped. They are also capable or nipping or scratching if frightened.
The wild-type coloration is referred to as "agouti" color; 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.
Common Name: Mongolian Gerbil
Scientific Name: Meriones unguiculatus
Adult Size: Body is about 4 inches long; tail adds another 4 inches
Life Expectancy: 2 to 3 years on average; can live up to 8 years
Gerbil Behavior and Temperament
Unlike a mouse or hamster, gerbils can often be seen sitting up on their hind legs. Mongolian gerbils are not nocturnal, but they are sometimes active at night. They go through several normal sleep cycles in the course of 24 hours. As pets, they are very curious and will explore anything so they can be quite entertaining to watch.
Gerbils live in colonies in the wild so they are very social animals; they do not do well as a solitary pet. Keeping a same-sex pair is necessary; litter-mates usually do well together. However, if you have a single gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one as they are quite territorial. Never put two strange gerbils together without going through the introduction process. They will fight, often to the death of one of the gerbils. You'll need to be patient as the introduction may take several weeks.
Being social creatures, gerbils can become quite tame with regular handling. They generally have an agreeable temperament and are only inclined to bite if they feel threatened. Hand-taming a gerbil is usually quite easy, and treats and positive reward systems like operant conditioning definitely help to speed up the process. Gerbils have long furry tails that have a little tuft of fur at the end, but you should never pick up a gerbil by their tail; this will cause permanent injury.
Give your gerbils a few days to acclimate to their new home before handling them. When you feel your pets are ready, start to approach them gently while they are awake. Bit by bit, you can gain their trust with these steps:
- Offer them treats through the bars of their cage.
- When they accept the treats regularly, offer a treat through the open cage door.
- When they are comfortable, place a treat on your open hand and wait for the gerbil to sit on your hand to eat the treat.
- Place treats on your arms so that the gerbil must climb up to fetch them.
Once your gerbil is comfortable with you, you can hold and carry your pet in your cupped hands. Many gerbils also enjoy having the sides and backs of their heads gently scratched. Avoid touching your gerbil's tail; if you are concerned that it may fall, you can quickly but gently grasp the scruff of its neck for repositioning.
Housing the Gerbil
For a pair of gerbils, a cage of about 12 inches by 24 inches by 12 inches tall is the 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 natural for pet gerbils. A secure mesh lid is necessary to prevent escapes and to allow for good ventilation.
Wire cages can be used for gerbils but gerbils do have a tendency to kick the bedding out of the cage through the wires when they burrow, which makes a mess. If using one in a pinch, the bar spacing should be no more than a 1/2 inch but also beware that any wire cages may cause kicking legs to get stuck. When the cage is too small, gerbils sometimes chew on wire cages resulting in sores on their noses and injured teeth. Plastic cages should not be used as they do not hold up to the chewing habits of gerbils, nor do they provide adequate ventilation.
Gerbils also need a nest box to feel secure. They will hide out in their nest box and use it for sleeping. A sturdy wood or ceramic nest box is preferable to plastic since any plastic will quickly be destroyed by chewing; 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 boxes.
Provide lots of materials for climbing and enrichment, such as thick pieces of wood, stable large rocks, ladders, ramps, and platforms. Toys that are safe for chewing should always be available. Wood toys or simple blocks of wood, branches, hay, wooden 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.
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 non-slippery tape over the wheel to provide a solid surface. There should be no place in an exercise wheel where your gerbil can get their feet and especially their tail stuck.
A fairly thick layer of bedding (two to three inches) in the cage provides a good base and allows the gerbils to dig. Avoid cedar or pine shavings. Aspen shavings are fine to use but most owners prefer one of the many kinds of paper bedding.
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 scent-free and chemical-free facial tissue which you can shred into strips for the gerbils. You can also use paper towels and/or grass hay for this purpose.
Food and Water
Gerbil diets should consist of 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 cereals, as treats. Look for a packaged diet that contains 15 to 16 percent protein and 4 to 5 percent fat. Heavy ceramic food dishes are the best choice since they are harder to tip over than a plate or lightweight bowl. A water bottle with a metal spout can be hung on the cage. A fresh supply of clean, non-chlorinated water should always be available.
Common Health Problems
Gerbils are usually quite healthy, but it's a good idea to locate an exotic animal veterinarian nearby just in case of accidents or health issues. Some of the more common issues to be aware of include:
- Tail issues: Picking up your gerbil by the tail will damage your pet irreparably. Tails also get caught and broken.
- Injuries: Gerbils are fairly tough, and can usually handle a fall from a relatively short height. If they fall from a taller height, however, they can break a bone. If your gerbil is wounded, in a fight with a cage-mate or a scratch from a piece of metal, for instance, check with your vet for procedures on how to disinfect the area.
- Heat stress and heat stroke: Gerbils are prone to becoming overheated; this can lead to lethargy, trembling, and even death. Be sure your pet's cage is well-ventilated, and respond quickly if you think your gerbil may be too hot.
- Illness: Like other rodents, gerbils can catch colds, develop diarrhea, or host fleas and mites. All of these issues are treatable; if not treated, they can shorten your pet's life.
- Shock: Shock can occur if a gerbil is dropped or even surprised; this can lead to convulsions. Usually, gerbils will recover naturally.
Purchasing Your Gerbil
Gerbils are available at pet stores and through reputable breeders. If you are looking for a particular coat color or pattern, you will certainly want to speak with a breeder; do be sure to check on the individual breeder's reputation. The American Gerbil Society keeps a listing of ethical breeders in each state. When purchasing a gerbil, look for bright eyes and shiny fur. Observe until you see a healthy appetite and normal water consumption in your chosen pet and in other animals in the same group. Make sure all animals are displaying high energy (if not sleeping), and pick only animals with clean and dry rear ends (showing no signs of diarrhea).
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