The ultimate guide to happy gerbils
What do your gerbil friends need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our gerbil top tips!
Gerbils are gentle, social rodents that hail from the desert environments of Africa, India and Asia. With their soft dense coat, long fur-covered tails and friendly nature, they make wonderful pets, providing you understand what’s involved in caring for these energetic, intelligent animals.
There are, in fact, about 90 species of gerbil, but the Mongolian gerbil is the one kept as a pet. Animal welfare charity Blue Cross advises: “They are active, sociable and intelligent and are very interesting to watch when provided with the right environment.
“For older children, gerbils can make rewarding pets but it’s important that an adult is responsible for overseeing their care and wellbeing. Gerbils do not enjoy being picked up and handled as they prefer to have their feet firmly on the ground. They're naturally quick and agile, so younger children can also find it difficult to hold them without squeezing too hard.”
Keep reading to find out:
- Health – how do you know if your gerbil is in good health?
- Behaviour – what activities does your gerbil need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
- Companionship – does your gerbil need a friend?
- Diet – what should you feed your gerbil?
- Environment – what housing does your gerbil need?
- Gerbils are generally diurnal animals, which means they're out and about during the day.
- Gerbils are burrowing rodents and construct deep, dark, underground burrows.
- Gerbils have relatively long hindlegs in comparison to their forelegs. They use their hindlegs extensively during digging and to perform rapid foot thumping to raise the alarm if they think they’re in danger!
- Gerbils are sociable – in the wild, they live in extended families of one breeding pair and several generations of offspring.
- Gerbils have very sensitive hearing and an excellent sense of smell. They scent-mark their territory using a gland on their abdomen. Females also scent-mark their pups, which is thought to help them recognise their own offspring in social groups.
- Gerbils learn a lot from their parents – for example, favoured foods are learnt from their mothers or from other familiar or related family members. Male gerbils help raise the young by collecting nesting material, helping to build the nest, and to clean the pups.
- Gerbils have a wide variety of coat colours, including black, spotted and the more common agouti colouring.
- Gerbils can live for up to 3 to 4 years – some even live longer.
As with all pet animals, every gerbil owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:
- Health– Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
- Behaviour– the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
- Companionship– to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like rabbits, guinea pigs and gerbils, or to be housed alone for solitary species such as Syrian hamsters.
- Diet– a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
- Environment– a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”
1. Health – how do you know if your gerbil is in good health?
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to gerbil health checks, veterinary and animal wellbeing charity Blue Cross has some useful tips: “A healthy gerbil has bright eyes, a glossy coat and is alert and lively. A runny or sticky nose or eyes, dull coat or lethargy are signs of ill health, and you should seek veterinary advice.”
The charity recommends giving your gerbils regular health checks – watch the Give Your Gerbil a Health Check video here >>.
Getting them used to being handled can make life easier for you and them. Here’s what to do:
- 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 their body, just behind the front legs, and support the back legs in your other hand.
- Always hold them close to a surface such as a table, your lap or their accommodation, as gerbils are extremely good jumpers and can easily jump out of hands and injure themselves. NEVER handle a gerbil by their tail as it's extremely fragile and can easily be injured.
A happy, healthy gerbil will show you exactly how they’re feeling! 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 all positive signs in gerbils, revealing that they are merrily going about their gerbil business. A comfortable, relaxed gerbil will use their tongue to groom or wash their paws, belly, face, and tail – if he or she does this while being held by you, it shows they are feeling happy and calm. If your gerbils vibrate or purr when you pet them, this signals that they are extremely happy and relaxed.
2. Behaviour – what activities does your gerbil need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
Gerbils are happiest when they’re digging and hanging out in tunnels, just like they do in the wild. They also like to gnaw and shred stuff.
Digging and burrowing
- Digging and burrowing are very important behaviours for these little rodents. Wild gerbils live 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 foodstores, 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.
- Providing them with suitable gerbilarium (see section 5, environment) with lots of space and some interesting textures to get their paws into – such as small animal moss, hay and cardboard – will give your gerbil chums hours of digging variety and enrichment.
- Gerbils require plenty of things to gnaw on, which also helps to keep their continuously growing teeth in good shape and keep them happily busy.
- Favoured woods include willow, hazel, beech, birch, pine, and branches from fruit trees (make sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticide).
- Gerbils also absolutely love shredding stuff – such as ink-free carboard, paper and hay bars. 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 chewy seagrass toys, Coconut Leaf Twists and Banana Leaf Balls wrapped in seagrass string for them to investigate and play with.
- Some gerbils may enjoy running in a wheel, so choose a solid, wide wheel with a non-slip running surface (don’t use one with spokes) fixed close to the cage wall, so that your gerbils’ feet, legs or tail cannot get trapped and injured.
- Make sure you select a wheel that’s the right size for your gerbils. They should be able to run with a straight back – if they have to bend backwards this can lead to back problems.
- Gerbils spend quite a bit of time grooming. Like a lot of small animals, they use their tongue and paws to comb through the fur all over their bodies.
- They also enjoy rolling around in a sand bath a couple of times a week to keep their coat in good condition – try a natural meadow hay sand bath filled with some chinchilla sand. Sand baths are also a fun and clean way for your pet to enjoy themselves as they would in the wild.
3. Companionship – does your gerbil need a friend?
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!
Introducing new gerbil friends
- 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.
- 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 meet nose to nose.
- Blue Cross advises: “Adult gerbils (over 10 weeks old) can be aggressive towards any newcomers. Females are often more aggressive than males, so pairings work best with a neutered male and a female, but you can bond the same sex with slow introductions. It’s best not to introduce a lone gerbil into an established group, as this can affect the dynamic of the existing group – two lone gerbils are generally easier to introduce.”
4. Diet – what should you feed your gerbils?
The best gerbil diet should replicate what they’d eat in their natural environment.
In their natural habitat of arid grasslands and deserts, wild gerbils forage for a variety of foods, including seeds of various grasses, leaves and herbs. They’ll also happily chow down on locusts, worms and beetles! And although they’re often thought of as herbivores, gerbils are actually omnivores, and need protein in their diet to keep them healthy, along with fibre to help their digestive system function correctly.
A healthy gerbil diet should comprise:
- Nutrition-packed nuggets – especially designed for gerbils that replicates their natural diet and contains all the essential nutrients and minerals they need for bone, teeth and heart health and to support a healthy coat. Steer away from ‘muesli-type’ mixtures as gerbils may pick out the bits that are high in sugar, which can cause painful problems with their teeth, and lead to an imbalanced diet.
- Some tasty, high-quality feeding hay is great for gnawing on, along with some untreated softwood such as hawthorn, hazelnut, pear, poplar or apple wood to chew. This will help keep their teeth healthy and stop them getting overgrown.
- An occasional treat of gerbil-safe fresh food, such as a small piece of fruit or vegetable, but be aware that too much green food can cause diarrhoea. Before you give your gerbil pals any fresh food, make sure you know what’s safe for them and what’s not.
Fresh fruit suitable for gerbils
Wild gerbils will naturally eat any fruit they come across (although this can be quite rare in a desert!), so small amounts of fresh fruit will be enjoyed as a treat. However, fruit is high in sugar, so too much can cause obesity.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises that the following fresh foods are suitable for gerbils – but only give them a tiny portion (think small slices or cubes). Gerbils like to sit up and hold pieces of food in their paws to munch on.
- Veg: Carrot, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, spinach, sweet peppers, cucumber, cress and courgette.
- Fresh herbs: Basil, sage, parsley and coriander.
- Fruits: Berries, such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, apple, pear, peach and melon.
NEVER feed citrus fruits, rhubarb or grapes to your gerbils as these are toxic to rodents. Avoid giving them potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves as these are poisonous. Make sure you give fruits and vegetables a good wash first and always ensure any uneaten fresh food is cleaned away before it spoils.
TOP FEEDING TIPS
- Feed your gerbils once a day. As these small rodents are diurnal, which means they are active during the daytime, the best feeding time is in the morning. Only feed the amount of gerbil food they need each day – around a tablespoon of gerbil nuggets
- In the wild, gerbils spend hours each day searching and digging for food. Rather than just putting your gerbils’ favourite food in a gnaw-proof ceramic bowl, scattering some of it around encourages natural foraging behaviour. Gerbils are inveterate hoarders – so stay vigilant and remove any stale food items they’ve stashed away.
- Don’t forget fresh drinking water too – this should be provided in a specially designed bottle, placed with the spout at the appropriate height.
5. Environment – what housing do your gerbils need?
Gerbils should be housed indoors. Their home should provide them with an environment that enables them to exhibit all their natural gerbil behaviours and be as spacious as possible, so they have lots of different areas to explore and plenty of places to dig.
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 generous handfuls of Timothy hay (also good for nibbling on). Add several pieces of cardboard – this will provide structure to their burrows and the gerbils can shred it to the size they need during construction time!
- Also provide 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. Nap & Nest is ideal. This is a super absorbent, luxury paper bedding that’s made from unused offcuts from teabag production. Soft on little paws, it’s easy to spot clean, reducing waste and making each bag last longer. Add a 3-5cm layer to your small animals’ bedding and toilet areas. Remove and replace just the soiled areas of bedding daily.
- Add some wood-based toys such as bendy bridges, gnaw sticks, tunnels and logs which they will climb on top of, hide under and chew.
- Install a rock your gerbils can call their own. Gerbils quite like to see what’s going on so if you put a flat rock in the tank, you may find they use it as a lookout point.
- Give your gerbils some cosy nesting boxes. 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 (ensure there are no rough edges) makes a good sleeping area. Don’t use anything made of plastic as these crafty chewers will demolish it.
- 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.
- Think location, location, location – 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.
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your gerbils from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It's all here >>
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