Gerbils are popular pets and, like hamsters, are small, inexpensive, and easy to care for. Gerbils are actually burrowing rodents that come from African and Asia; while there are several breeds of gerbils in the wild, most pets are Mongolian gerbils. While many people do enjoy gerbils as pets, they are not ideal for very young children: They can be injured if squeezed or dropped, and are capable or nipping or scratching if frightened.
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; 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, gerbils can often be seen sitting up on their hind legs.
- Scientific Name: Meriones unguiculatus
- Lifespan: 2 to 3 years on average, but up to 8
- Size: Body is about 4 inches long, and the tail adds another 4 inches
- Difficulty of Care: Intermediate
Gerbil Behavior and Temperament
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). Hand taming a gerbil is usually quite easy and treats definitely help to speed the process.
Housing the Gerbil
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 natural for 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.
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.
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.
A fairly thick layer of bedding (2 to 3 inches) 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.
Food and Water
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 to 12 percent protein and 4 to 7 percent fat in it.
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.
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:
- 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 for 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 hold the scruff of its neck gently.
Common Health Problems
Gerbils are usually quite healthy, but it's a good idea to locate an exotic vet nearby just in case of accidents or health issues. Some of the more common issues to be aware of include:
- Injuries. Gerbils are fairly tough, and can usually handle a fall from a relatively short distance. If they fall from a height, however, they can break a bone. If your gerbil is wounded (for example, in a fight with a cage-mate or a scratch from a piece of metal) you will need to disinfect the area and check with your vet.
- Tail issues. It's tempting to pick your gerbil up by the tail, but this can damage your pet irreparably.
- 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. Shock can occur if a gerbil is dropped or surprise; this can lead to convulsions. Usually, gerbils will recover naturally from these problems.
- Illness. Like other rodents, gerbils can catch colds, develop diarrhea, or host fleas and mites. All of these issues are treatable, but if not treated can shorten your pet's life.
Purchasing Your Gerbil
Gerbils are available at pet stores and through breeders. If you're looking for a particular breed of gerbil you will certainly want to go through a breeder, but do be sure to check on the individual breeder's reputation. When purchasing a gerbil, look for:
- Bright eyes
- Shiny fur
- Healthy appetite
- High energy (if not sleeping)
- Clean, dry rear end (no signs of diarrhea)
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