Astonishing gerbil facts
Find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about these friendly, curious tunnelling experts who, despite their small size, are simply bursting with character...
Gerbils have been popular pets for more than 50 years and watching these small rodents – who are larger than mice but smaller than rats and have long furry tails – in action is endlessly entertaining.
So, if you want to know lots of interesting facts about gerbils as pets – plus, how to look after a gerbil, what gerbils eat and how long does a gerbil live and more – here’s your chance. We take a look at:
- Where do gerbils come from?
- When did people first have gerbils as pets?
- What colours do gerbils come in?
- Do gerbils need to live with other gerbils?
- What do gerbils like to do?
- What accommodation should gerbils live in?
- What gerbil food do gerbils like to eat?
- How friendly are gerbils?
- How do you pick up a gerbil?
- How do gerbils communicate?
- How intelligent are gerbils?
- How can you tell if gerbils are happy?
- How long do gerbils live?
Where do gerbils come from?
In the wild, gerbils live in desert environments across Africa, India and Asia. And, although there are many species of gerbils, the Mongolian gerbil is the type most commonly kept as a pet.
When did people first have gerbils as pets?
The first known mention of gerbils was in 1866 by Father Armand David, a well-travelled priest with a fascination for the natural sciences. He sent ‘yellow rats’ from northern China to the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1935, a Dr C Kasuga captured 20 pairs in Eastern Mongolia. In 1954, a Dr Victor Schwentker obtained 11 pairs descended from Dr Kasuga’s original group and started another gerbil colony in New York state. They first appeared as pets in the UK in 1964.
What colours do gerbils come in?
Pet gerbils come in a wide variety of coat colours including black, slate, lilac, spotted and the most common agouti colouring. Experts have noted that there are behavioural and physical differences between the black and agouti types. For example, black gerbils scent mark more than agouti gerbils, with females showing a preference for males of their own fur colour.
DID YOU KNOW?
Gerbils are diurnal, which means they are active during the daytime, although they enjoy frequent snoozes throughout the day.
Do gerbils need to live with other gerbils?
Wild gerbils hang out in family groups of up to 17 or more individuals, formed by many generations of offspring. These tight knit colonies groom each other, play and work together to find food – highly social behaviour, which is why you should never keep a gerbil as a solo pet. Same-sex pairs or small groups are best as gerbils breed from three months old and can swiftly produce a litter of four to 10 babies every 24 days!
Family is everything to a gerbil. In the wild, young gerbils spend a lot of time with their parents, learning key life skills to enable them to survive and live healthily in the wild – they even pick up what they can or cannot eat from watching their parents and other family members. Gerbil dads are also involved in the upbringing of youngsters – they gather nesting materials to protect them, clean them, and show them how to gather food and materials for themselves.
What do gerbils like to do?
Gerbils are happiest when they’re hanging out in tunnels, just like they do in the wild. Digging and burrowing are very important behaviours for these curious little rodents. Wild gerbils live in dry climates, in large, deep burrows – that protect them from extremes of weather and predators – which they use their long hind legs and sharp claws to dig.
A single colony of gerbils will typically construct an extensive network of burrows, with tunnels leading to food stores, nesting areas, and escape routes. These burrows can go as deep as 1.7 metres and stretch across 6 to 8 metres.
Watch your pet gerbils burrowing and you’ll be amazed at the speed with which they operate – it’s a skill they’ve retained from their wild ancestors that helps them to hide quickly underground.
DID YOU KNOW?
Gerbils spend quite a bit of time grooming to keep their coats in good condition. Like a lot of small animals they use their tongue and paws to comb through the fur all over their bodies.
What accommodation should gerbils live in?
The best way to mimic a gerbil’s natural habitat is to house them in a gerbilarium or aquarium with solid glass walls and a secure wire-mesh top. In terms of space, the general rule is the more space the better as gerbils like to have plenty of room to move around. Two gerbils need a minimum floor surface of 40cm x 75cm in a tank that’s at least 50cm high to allow your gerbils to dig to their heart’s content and still have room to pop up above ground and stand fully upright (an adult gerbil is approximately 12cm tall).
- Supply plenty of material for burrowing – such as dust-extracted bedding or organic soil (don’t use soil from your garden as it may contain harmful bacteria or parasites) along with some 100% natural hay and some shredded paper for nesting. Don’t use fluffy material as this can wrap around gerbils’ limbs and injure them, or sawdust, which can cause respiratory problems.
- In addition to digging their own shelters, provide your gerbils with cosy nesting boxes (one each so they can choose to enjoy a solo snooze or a group cuddle). These should be large enough to set up a food store, to sleep in, and to comfortably move around in, ideally with multiple entrances to avoid the bossiest animals trapping others inside. A clay flowerpot cut in half makes a good sleeping area – don’t use anything made of wood or plastic or these crafty chewers will demolish it.
- They’ll also enjoy having a good roll around in a shallow dish filled with chinchilla dust as part of their grooming routine.
- Gerbils love plenty of things to gnaw on, which also helps to keep their continuously growing teeth in good shape and keep them busily happy. Favoured woods include willow, hazel, beech, birch, pine, and branches from fruit trees (make sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticide). Providing some wholesome Gnaw Sticks will also be appreciated.
- Gerbils also absolutely love shredding stuff – such as ink-free carboard, paper and hay. Empty toilet rolls, egg cartons or plain cardboard boxes are ideal. They’ll have tons of fun running through cardboard tubes and then shredding them into oblivion. Stock up on Coconut Leaf Twists and Banana Leaf Balls wrapped in seagrass string for them to investigate and play with.
- Site your gerbils’ accommodation in a dry, draught-free place – an ideal temperature range is 20-24°C. Keeping a comfortable, stable temperature is vital and should never drop below 10°C. Gerbils also need protecting from overheating and should be housed away from the glare of direct sunlight, or next to a radiator. During the summer months, make sure that your gerbil has a way of keeping themselves cool. Use an electric fan in the room where they live to keep the air circulating. Make sure the fan is not near enough for any wires to be reachable and never direct it straight at their enclosure. Gerbils have very acute hearing and assume that they are in danger if they hear loud noises. House them away from items that can generate ultrasound – such as TVs, computer screens, vacuum cleaners or sources of running water.
What do gerbils eat?
Gerbils are omnivores and need protein and fibre in their diet. Without these nutrients, their digestive systems may not function correctly, leading to digestive problems such as diarrhoea and stomach upsets.
- Burgess Hamster Gerbil & Mouse supplies a balanced diet with useful vitamins such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D3 and Vitamin E. Together, these nutrients and vitamins encourage bone, teeth and heart health, and support a healthy coat. Burgess Hamster Gerbil & Mouse is a complete food. This means that it will contain all the nutrients you gerbils need in the correct balance.
- Gerbils may have a tendency to selectively feed. If you give them a muesli style diet then they may only eat the high starch and sugary elements of food, leaving behind the higher fibre pieces, which would provide them greater nutritional value. Feeding a nutritionally balanced high-fibre nugget diet such as Burgess Hamster Gerbil & Mouse will help avoid this.
- Gerbils like to sit up and hold pieces of food in their paws to munch on. Tiny portions of fresh fruit (pear, melon, apple and blueberry) and vegetables (broccoli, cucumber, carrot, pumpkin and fennel) can be provided as an occasional treat. Avoid citrus fruits such as oranges, tangerines and satsumas, as they are far too acidic for gerbils to handle, and the sugar content is quite high, which can lead to mouth sores. Too much fresh food can lead to diarrhoea and stomach upsets. Never give your pets grapes, rhubarb, potatoes or tomato leaves as these are poisonous to rodents.
- Gerbils’ teeth are designed to continually grow, so they also need abrasive foods such as feeding hay to help wear them down and maintain good dental health.
- Add variety with some Burgess Excel treats and snacks, such as Gnaw Sticks and Excel Country Garden Herbs, which are made with 100% natural ingredients and can be fed in small amounts daily. These can be added as a tasty topper or sprinkled through feeding hay. Encourage foraging behaviour by scattering a portion of your pets’ food in bedding or hiding it in cardboard egg cups, paper cups or small paper bags, so your gerbils have to work to find and enjoy their tasty nibbles.
- Be aware that gerbils are inveterate hoarders. They don’t have cheek pouches like hamsters but they can carry food back and forth to their underground store very quickly, often working together to speed the process up. So stay vigilant and remove any stale food items they’ve stashed away.
- Fresh, clean drinking water must always be available, in a drinking bottle with a metal sipper tube – water bowls will be tipped over and buried.
Find out more about feeding your gerbils here >>
How friendly are gerbils?
With other bonded gerbils, they are friendly and sociable little creatures – although there may be the occasional scuffle between roommates. However, their scientific name Meriones unguiculatus translates as ‘little clawed warrior’ – and when you find out more about gerbil behaviour, it’s easy to see why. Wild gerbils are highly suspicious of strangers and, if needs be, will fight to protect their colony from outsiders.
This instinct remains in pet gerbils – introducing two unrelated gerbils needs to be undertaken extremely carefully. Although they don’t want a fight on their paws, a gerbil that feels threatened or stressed can show aggression. So, you’ll need to set up an arrangement where the two gerbils can see and smell each other without having any physical contact until they are comfortable with each other’s presence before they get to meet nose to nose.
Gerbils enjoy human interaction too and can make good pets for older children, as long as an adult supervises interactions, explains how to handle them safely (because gerbils are quick and agile, young children can find it tricky to hold them without squeezing too hard), and is responsible for their health and wellbeing. These exotic pets take more looking after than a child can manage on their own.
DID YOU KNOW?
Gerbils have powerful long hind legs, which makes them excellent jumpers – fully grown gerbils can jump around 30cm high when required. They also thump their rear feet on the ground to warn the rest of the community if they sense danger.
How do you pick up a gerbil?
Great care must be taken when handling gerbils – it can be just as much fun to watch them speedily digging tunnels and chasing each other. The best way to hold and carry a gerbil is cupped in the palm of your hand. They are prone to jumping and sprinting off without warning, so never hold a gerbil high off the ground without suitable support. Never try to pick up a gerbil by its tail.
Gerbils are usually happy to be handled, although some can be timid. Start by placing your hand in the tank so the gerbils can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them. Pick up a gerbil by placing your hand around its body, just behind the forelegs, and support the hindquarters in your other hand. Never handle a gerbil by the end of its tail. Children should only handle gerbils under adult supervision in case they accidentally squeeze too hard.
How do gerbils communicate?
Gerbils are very quiet animals – although they can make a high-pitched sound if they’re involved in a tussle with another gerbil. For gerbils, who have a highly tuned sense of smell, scent is an effective form of communication. Gerbils recognise each other by their own scent and scent-mark their territory using their bellies and feet. Females also scent-mark their pups. A large, flat stone in their gerbilarium will be welcomed as an important scent-marking spot – as well as serving as a handy lookout point to scan for danger – or to see if their human is making a food delivery!
DID YOU KNOW?
Gerbils are not brilliant climbers due to fur covering the soles of their feet.
How intelligent are gerbils?
While not as adaptable as rats when it comes to learning tricks from humans, gerbils can pick up some basic tricks. Using treats such as Burgess Excel Apple Snacks as a reward is a great way to get them to respond to what you are asking. When cleaning out their tank, place items back in different places. This helps stimulate your gerbils’ natural sense of curiosity, giving them a ‘new’ area to explore and keeping them happily active.
How can you tell if gerbils are happy?
If your gerbils jump in the air, it’s a sign they’re excited – you may find that they do this when they see you first thing in the morning, or when you are playing with them as a way of letting you know they are happy to be socialising with you. Burrowing, tunnelling, or digging are positive signs in gerbils, revealing that they are merrily going about their gerbil business. A comfortable, relaxed gerbil will use his tongue to groom or wash his paws, belly, face, and tail – if he does this while being held by you, he’s revealing that he feels happy and calm. If your gerbils vibrate or purr when you pet them, this signals that they are very happy and relaxed indeed.
How long do gerbils live?
Gerbils live between three to five years. As with any pets, there are a lot of things you can do to maximise their lifespan and ensure they live a healthy, happy life. Keeping them in clean and safe conditions, providing high quality food and fresh water, things to gnaw on and making sure they are not put in stressful situations will all help your gerbils feel safe and secure. However, if you notice a gerbil is acting out of sorts, it’s always worth getting them checked out by your vet. Seeing a well-groomed gerbil is a sign that your rodent chum is happy and healthy, if you notice your gerbil becoming scruffy and unkempt there is likely to be an underlining issue that needs investigating.
CARE MORE: Small animals such gerbils, are classed as ‘exotic’ pets. As such, they take a lot of looking after in order to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. It’s essential that you avoid impulse buying and do plenty of research so you provide your new furry friend with the right accommodation, nutrition, enrichment and company of their own kind.
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