It’s widely known that gerbils are just about the most inquisitive and cutest creatures in the world, and so it’s no wonder that they are one of the most popular choices of domestic pets in the UK.
Their endlessly entertaining behaviour and adorable quirks have always been beloved by young children and adults alike, and so many families choose to purchase them for children as a first pet, and an introduction to animals at home.
However, looking after one is far from child’s play, and there is, in fact, quite a lot to learn before you purchase a new wee little furball! Sadly, a lot of misinformation still exists about the care of gerbils, and many new owners are given the wrong advice when it comes looking after a pint-sized pal.
So to help you avoid running into any issues, we’ve put together this in-depth, trustworthy guide, to clue you up on everything you need to know on gerbil caregiving!
- Lifespan: 2 to 8 years (Depending on breed)
- Average Height: 10 – 20 cm
- Average Weight: 40 – 60 g
- Popular Breeds: Mongolian, Fat-tailed
- Diet: Gerbil Pellets, Fruit & Veg
- Origin: Africa, Asia
IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Before you decide you really want a gerbil, you need to consider these important caregiving factors:
- They need to be kept in pairs – Gerbils are social creatures and if they don’t have a buddy alongside them they can become depressed and inactive.
- Gerbils are fragile – Although they are a great pet for young children, gerbils can be easily injured due to rough or careless handling, meaning kids should always have parent supervision when looking after them.
- They need stricter cleaning – Gerbils need their enclosures to be much cleaner than the average rodent, and so you’ll need to set aside one day per week for cleaning.
- Gerbils live an average of five years – Make sure you’re ready for the commitment!
- They breed rapidly – To prevent your enclosure suddenly becoming overrun with gerbils, make sure you buy pairs of the same sex or that any male is neutered.
- Gerbils are destructive – Gerbils love tearing up just about anything with their teeth, so be careful not to spend a fortune on toys!
- They don’t do well in cages – Gerbils are not hamsters, and so a cage is not the best environment for them. Gerbils are diggers and burrowers and so they need something like a tank or a gerbilarium to withhold a deep amount of bedding.
WHERE TO BUY A GERBIL
Once you’re sure gerbils really are the pet for you, your next question is probably where to buy them from. Thankfully, gerbils are a widely available animal and can be bought from many pet shops, breeders and rescue organisations.
However, you need to make sure that whoever you buy your gerbils from is reputable, and that they’ve taken good care of the animal before they come home with you.
This is because gerbils living in poor conditions could easily be carrying illness or infection, which would cause you and your family needless distress or grief should you purchase a suffering animal.
There is also a risk of a seller unethically breeding gerbils, forcing mothers to have several litters one after the other and then separating the babies from their mother at too young an age and selling them as pets before they are weaned or able to take care of themselves.
A reputable seller should keep their gerbils in a tank or gerbilarium, with good access to food and water, in an environment which is not overcrowded or full of ill animals. If buying a pup, you will also want to make sure it has not been separated from its mother.
It’s therefore important to never purchase gerbils over the internet without seeing their current living conditions first!
Our first recommendation would be to go to a shelter and adopt gerbils who are in need of care and a new home. As shelters are usually rescue charities, you can rest assured that they are concerned and deliberate when it comes to protecting the wellbeing and welfare of an animal, and so will undoubtedly have kept their gerbils in a loving and suitable environment.
The gerbils themselves will also likely have had lots of human interaction due to staff and visitors handling them, so won’t need much taming when it comes to petting and playing with them!
However, we understand that some people might want their gerbils from pup age with no previous ownership, and so purchasing them from a pet shop or breeder might be best for you.
You might find you can choose from a wider variety of gerbils at a pet store than in a shelter, but you need to be much more on your toes when observing their living quarters.
As always you want to make sure the enclosures are large enough, that the animals look well and have access to food, water and a burrowing environment. But the most important thing is to find out what sex they are!
Shops have a high turn-over rate of animals coming in and coming out, and so it’s not always a given that an assistant will know exactly what’s going on in each individual cage in the store.
The risk here is that the store may accidentally pair gerbils of the opposite sex together or that you may accidentally purchase an opposing pair, and as gerbils are fast breeders, this would end up being quite a big problem! Make sure a store assistant double-checks the gender of any pair you’re observing, and if they can’t, perform the check yourself!
If you’re looking for a seller who is a little more knowledgeable then you’ll want to go to a breeder, who will naturally have a lot of knowledge and advice about the animal.
However, the key here is to determine whether your breeder is ethical or not, as there is a risk that they may just be churning out gerbils left, right and centre with no real care for the animal.
Signs a breeder is not too interested in the welfare of gerbils would be a ridiculously large amount of pups all available for sale at one, overcrowding, ill animals and underage gerbils up for sale.
A good test is to always ask a breeder to see a litter’s mother. Your alarm bells should be ringing if they refuse, or if they accept and the mother looks ill or is already pregnant after only just birthing her last litter.
CHOOSING YOUR GERBIL
Before choosing some randy chewers, you first need to make sure they are in good health and ready to be given a new home.
Healthy gerbils should have been bred and raised in a clean environment that is uncrowded, with plenty of access to food and water. So if you’re witnessing anything other than that upon purchase from a seller, be very concerned!
If you can, make sure you examine a gerbil personally before making any firm decisions.
First, check the gerbil’s fur for any patchiness or areas of damage, as well as the skin for any ominous lumps and bumps before observing their rear end for any signs of diarrhoea, a serious issue for gerbils.
Although slightly more difficult to assess, you should also observe they’re breathing to check for respiratory infections or allergies. Healthy breathing will be quiet and easy, with no noticeable strain or strange noises.
Finally, you should check their ears and eyes and ensure they are free from any discharge or crust, and in the case of the ears, mite-free too!
And remember, a healthy gerbil will likely be displaying an active attitude around its enclosure through eating or burrowing.
However, even if your chosen gerbil appears fine, if it is sharing a cage with several others that appear to be in a sickly condition, it’s best not to take the gamble. Gerbil diseases are very contagious, and so it’s likely your chosen furball will contract the same fate.
One of the main risks with buying gerbils is making sure you avoid purchasing one’s that are too young, which you won’t be able to look after properly.
Baby gerbils, or pups as they are known, tend to move onto solid foods from around the age of 6 – 7 weeks and so this is the earliest age you should ever purchase a gerbil, as a baby should never be separated from its parent until successfully weaned.
Obviously though, it can be difficult to tell how old a gerbil is just by looking at it, and so many of us simply have to trust what we are being told by the seller. However, there are a few traits you can watch out for.
Always avoid purchasing a gerbil pup who has yet to open its eyes. This means they are no older than three weeks old, and much too young to be taken care of without their mother.
Newborn gerbils are also born hairless, slowly growing their fur over the first few weeks of their life. If a gerbil is showing signs of very sparse, thin or still growing hair, it is likely no older than four weeks, and still much too young to be a domestic pet!
And of course, make sure they are eating solid foods, otherwise, they’re definitely still being weaned!
If your seller doesn’t seem sure of their age or has clearly separated a very young gerbil from their mother, you should probably avoid buying!
We accept that some people want certain sexes of gerbil when looking for a pet, but it’s important to ensure that when pairing up gerbils, there is no chance of mating.
This means either purchasing two gerbils of the same sex, or having one neutered male and one female.
However, be warned that vets will only perform neutering surgeries on gerbils that are over 5 months old to avoid complications with anaesthetic, which isn’t exactly helpful when males and females typically begin mating from three months of age!
This is why we recommend owning same-sex pairs, as it eliminates the need for any expensive operations which carry risks and guarantees no surprise litters.
But how on earth do you go about determining the sex of a gerbil before you buy?!
Well, if your seller is reputable, you shouldn’t need to.
Ask them to determine the sex of the gerbils you have your eyes on and they should be able to perform an accurate check in front of you without any real issues.
However, it’s always best to know what you’re looking for yourself, in case you don’t quite trust their judgement, or they clearly have no idea what they’re doing!
Have the seller show you the gerbils genitals, by holding them loosely and close to their body and then cradling them on their backs. Gerbils don’t particularly enjoy being held on their backs and so make sure you’re quick to get identifying!
Believe it or not, telling the difference between the two gerbil parts is actually quite difficult and so we would recommend trying to gauge whether or not there is some anogenital distancing instead of getting out your gerbil anatomy book!
By this, we simply mean observing how large the gap is between the gerbil’s genitals and their anus, which differs between males and females.
If it is a female there will be virtually no distance, and the genitals will sit very close to the anus.
Conversely, If it is a male, there will be some distance, of approximately an inch.
Males also often have a bulging scent gland on their abdomen.
Despite people often choosing more popular choosing pets like hamsters and guinea pigs, gerbils are actually one of the few rodents to actually enjoy handling and being played with!
Even when bringing a gerbil home for the first time, it won’t take too long for them to become tame, as they are naturally inquisitive and social creatures, and you should be firm friends within two days!
However, you should always let your gerbil come to you, as just like with any animal, you may suddenly startle them if you’re just grabbing them out of their enclosure with no care or consideration.
Display your palm to them and let them hop aboard, and if they’re not forthcoming, try holding out a treat for them! You can then hold them by placing one hand underneath their body and using the other to support their hind legs.
You also need to remember that gerbils are fragile, which is why it’s generally suggested that only children of eleven years of age and older look after them.
If you are letting young children play with gerbils, then you need to supervise them and make yourself and them aware of these important handling factors.
Firstly, gerbils are the natural prey of certain predator birds in the wild, who swoop down from above to snatch them.
It’s therefore probably not a very good idea to swiftly and suddenly come in from above and grab them, as it will be their natural instinct to burrow away from you or panic. Instead, as mentioned before, make sure they can clearly see your hands and your movements, and let them come to you.
The most important thing to note though is the fragility of their tails.
While they might look strong, especially on fat-tailed breeds, they can be so easily damaged if handled incorrectly, so you must never grab a gerbils tail. Sometimes as a defence mechanism, gerbils can shed their tail if it is grabbed too hard and unfortunately it can never grow back, which you obviously wouldn’t want to happen.
The only way to prevent such an incident is by being as caring and considerate as possible, so be sure to always treat your gerbil like the finest of china!
There are only two species of gerbil that are commonly kept as pets however thanks to breeders there are lots of different variations in colour for you to choose from.
The two species are Mongolian gerbils and fat-tailed gerbils, which are both very different in appearance and also have varying lifespans.
Fat-tailed gerbils live the longest at an average of five to eight years, with Mongolians often living half of that time with an expectancy of two to four years. This may be a factor for you should very long-term commitments be an issue.
Mongolians are small and furry and spend most of their time creating complex tunnels to live in. These are by far the most popular species of gerbil and the most commonly kept. They can also be found in black, white, cream, dove and cinnamon colours.
The fat-tailed gerbil is slightly different, mainly due to its – you guessed it! – fat tail. Whereas the Mongolian gerbil hails from Asia, the fat-tailed has its roots in northern Africa. They have long thick, hairless tails which are used in the wild for storing fat, which allow them to survive the sparse conditions and lack of food in the Sahara desert.
They are fairly rare, and actually have more in common with a hamster than a gerbil in terms of behaviour, meaning if you really want a gerbil, you should probably avoid them anyway!
Crucially, it needs to be able to provide them with a space for burrowing down ‘below ground’, as well as an ‘above ground’ area for them to explore and play in.
Naturally, the act of burrowing can be quite messy, as it involves kicking up dirt and digging through dirt, and so despite what a lot of people might assume, a cage structure is simply not going to suffice for a gerbil.
Instead, you’ll need a gerbilarium, a cross between a hamster cage and a glass vivarium you might expect to keep reptiles in.
Gerbilariums ensure the lower tank part of the structure can safely contain burrowing materials without causing a mess, as well as provide deeper opportunities for digging. Then the top wire structure provides a great living area to fill with toys and your feeding equipment!
You want to make sure that your gerbilarium supplies a tall enough wire area for them to exercise and play in, as well as a deep enough tank to allow for sufficient burrowing.
As a general rule, simply go for the very largest one you can afford and safely fit into your home, as this is the easiest way to ensure you’ve given your gerbils the most room possible. Tank-wise, it’s suggested you have around ten gallons of space per gerbil at an absolute minimum. The living area should also be tall enough so that your gerbils can stand up on their hind legs without reaching the ceiling!
Of equal importance is also the security of the gerbilarium. Gerbils have sharp teeth which when combined with sharp wits can help them out of any situation – including chewing their way through a cage! Therefore, you need to make sure their enclosure is fashioned from a durable material that is indestructible and easy to clean like wire.
No house is complete without some bedrooms and so you will need to supply your gerbils cage with nest boxes to provide them with a space to sleep or hide in.
A nest box should be large enough to fit a few gerbils, or you can provide them with one each should your gerbilarium have the room! It must also be filled with lots of pet-safe bedding to create a warm and cosy nest!
Entertainment & Exercise
One of the main reasons gerbils need entertainment is to help perturb boredom.
And while that may not seem like a pressing issue, a severely bored gerbil can actually develop agitated and erratic behavioural problems, which will eventually have an upsetting detrimental effect on their health.
It’s crucial to keep their lives full of joy and activity, and can be easily done with the right tank decor!
Firstly, you need to ensure again that the tank is providing enough room for digging and burrowing opportunities, as that alone can go a long way to keeping a gerbil happy!
Then, once you’re sure the set-up is correct, you can start adding toys and equipment to help light up their lives.
Thankfully, this is relatively inexpensive, as the easiest thing to do is simply fashion cardboard tubes and boxes into hidey holes and tunnels. This also accounts for the destructive behaviour of gerbils, as it’s far easier on your wallet for them to tear up an old toilet tube as opposed to a brand new fancy tunnel toy!
But if you do want to treat them to some more exciting objects and obstacles, you’ll find plenty of small pet toys like ladders, seesaws, houses and all sorts of silly things in pet stores and online.
If starting a toy collection, you can store some of these away and rotate them to keep gerbils surprised and engaged with their tank accessories, which also gives you a chance to regularly clean them.
We would recommend always opting for durable, long-lasting toys, although this can’t always be guaranteed thanks to a gerbils mighty tusks! Chewing and gnawing toys, or even just a gnawing block can be very helpful in keeping damage down to a minimum, as well as ensuring your little furballs keep their teeth refined and in check!
Remember that exercise is also important for keeping weight down and improving overall health, and just like hamsters, gerbils will need a suitable exercise wheel for running on!
Bedding is a very important part of a gerbil’s home, as it helps keep them warm and satisfies their natural burrowing instincts.
You preferably want this to be absorbent to help soak up urine, but also not too dry to ensure they can still dig tunnels properly. Popular bedding for gerbils includes hay, shredded recycled paper, wood shavings and cardboard shavings.
However, if you would prefer your gerbil to have more natural bedding, you can use potting compost or peat, which is more like the sand and dirt they are used to digging in the wild and will help them build a more complex underground network.
You need to be careful when selecting bedding though, as although you might find plenty of substances advertised as being perfect for gerbils, they may not be particularly healthy!
Never use newspaper as shredded paper for bedding, as ink can be toxic to gerbils. You may also see some gerbil owners swearing by sawdust as a good bedding material, but it has been known to irritate gerbil’s eyes and noses, so is best to avoid.
You also need to be very careful if buying wood chipping material, as some types of wood shavings are harmful to gerbils. Pine and cedar shavings should definitely be avoided, as they can be easily breathed in by your pet and cause respiratory issues.
The absolute worst bedding to use is fluffy, cotton-style bedding, as it can get caught on a pet’s limbs and won’t dissolve properly when eaten, causing digestive issues.
Conditions & Temperature
A house can be a strange environment for a gerbil, as there are so many aspects of their surroundings they may find confusing. It’s therefore your aim to ensure these confusing things don’t become actively distressing or frightening for your pets!
Firstly try and place your gerbilarium as far away from the hustle and bustle of your house as possible. Choose a room or spot that is calm and quiet, that is going to be stress-free with very few people and loud noises. It’s especially important to keep them away from speaker systems and television sets which can make them stressed due to the sounds and vibrations they create.
In terms of temperature, it’s important to keep your gerbil’s area fairly warm, especially in the winter months. Temperatures of around 20 – 22°C should be perfect, making sure to keep their enclosure out of direct sunlight and draughts.
It also goes without saying that if you have other pets like a cat or dog you should keep them away from your gerbils at all times! Cats, in particular, might not be able to resist their mouse-like nature and so keeping them well away from a gerbilarium is a must!
As gerbils live in large groups in the wild, it’s advised you keep them in at least a pair to prevent them becoming bored or depressed.
The recommended pairing is two gerbils of the same sex, but if you’d prefer a male and female duo, you will need to have the male neutered to prevent frequent and unmanageable litters!
If you are introducing a new gerbil to another one in an existing enclosure, you also need to proceed with a degree of caution.
To introduce two new gerbils to each other, you’ll need to either use a divider in their gerbilarium and separate them into two living spaces. This divider should be see-through or wired so that the gerbils can see each other, but not touch each other.
Then, several times a day, you should swap the gerbils so that they are in the other one’s living area. This will help them become used to each other’s scents, as rodents do a lot of their communicating through smelling and scent glands.
As gerbils are social creatures, you should see them start to sleep near each other between the divider after around a week, and they may even begin to show curiosity towards each other.
At this point, you can remove the divider, and closely observe how your gerbils interact with each other for the first time. If a serious fight breaks out, you’ll need to separate them and repeat the process again, for an even longer period of time. Make sure you’re wearing leather gloves when splitting up fighting gerbils, as otherwise you might get a nasty bite or nip!
Occasionally, gerbils will playfight and that isn’t something which needs to be addressed. This will look like a harmless chase game or play boxing, whereas a real fight would involve biting and blood!
If no fights break out after around 30 minutes of their first meeting you can begin relaxing, but make sure to keep an eye on them more often than you usually would.
You should also only ever introduce a gerbil to another lone gerbil, as introducing one to an existing group will only cause problems, as the group will likely be territorial and not be very accepting.
A gerbil’s cage or other form of living space needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent your pets from living in squalor and becoming ill!
However unlike other rodents, gerbils have relatively low odours and so general guidance suggests you only need to do so once a week, or if you own a large group of three or more gerbils, twice a week.
You may find that doing daily spot cleaning can help decrease larger scale weekly cleanings too, as gerbils have very dry droppings and produce very little urine. This means dirty areas are easy to spot and can be easily removed as you spot them.
Cleaning a gerbilarium is easy enough and requires you to remove your gerbil and put them in a temporary enclosure while you get to work. This temporary cage needs to be supplied with everything they need such as food, water and bedding!
First, remove the accessories from the cage and clean them with disinfectant or soapy water.
Then, remove all of the bedding, being sure to recycle any peat in your compost bin.
From here, you can begin to clean the cage. Thoroughly scrub the glass vivarium section with disinfectant and a cloth, taking care to remove dirt and missed bedding from the corners, then repeat the process with the upper wire cage section.
Once clean, wait for the cage and vivarium section to dry and then fill with fresh bedding/burrowing material and replace the clean and dry accessories.
You can then replace your gerbils back into their cage!
The loss of smells from cleaning may confuse a gerbil at first and so it’s best to leave them for a while to get used to their habitat again before handling them.
Gerbils are omnivores, meaning they eat a mixture of plants and meat, and their ideal diet should be based around some hearty helpings of gerbil pellets with some small supplements of fruit and veg every day. It also goes without saying that your little pets will need constant access to clean drinking water, taking care to replace their bottle with fresh water every day.
Safe Fruit & Veg
While fruit and vegetables are obviously great choices of food for a gerbil, you need to keep portions to a suitable level to avoid an upset stomach.
This is especially true for fruit, as it also contains high sugar content, and so is not good for their teeth when consumed in high amounts.
So that you feel confident in the food you’re providing your gerbils, consult this list of safe and suitable veg:
- Broad beans
We understand owners wanting to give their gerbils a taste of something special every now and then, as everyone loves spoiling their pets!
However, we really don’t recommend that you make a daily habit out of doling out sweet treats, as it can cause them to become obese and severely affect their health.
Try and move away from fruits and commercial treats when looking to light up the life of your pet, and instead go for things which give additional health benefits without any negatives.
Healthy, natural treats would include lean meat, lentils, beans, boiled or scrambled egg, mealworms, peas or chickpeas!
Treats we would suggest limiting to special occasions would be sunflower seeds, nuts and honey sticks, because they are packed with fats which will cause weight gain when eaten excessively!
Things To Chew
The ever-growing teeth of a gerbil means that the act of gnawing and chewing is an instinctive quality, and so you may want to provide them with even more chewing opportunities around their enclosure.
In terms of shredding and playing, gerbils can get particular enjoyment from tearing up:
- Banana Leaves
- Unbleached loofah
- Pumice stone
- Coconut Shells
- Hay Cubes
- Mineral Lava
In terms of gnawing, owners often give gerbils softwood branches after they have treated them. By baking softwood twigs on a low heat for an hour and then washing them, you’ll remove any harmful bacteria and have a super cheap gnaw toy ready to go:
- Elm & Red Elm
- Grape & Grapevine
Foods To Avoid
You’d be forgiven for thinking your gerbil is fine to eat any fruit or veg you throw its way, but you need to be very careful, as there are a few foods you definitely shouldn’t feed them if you want to keep their teeth and guts healthy!
Rodent muesli mixes are very popular, however due to gerbils being very selective with their food, they have been known to ignore the healthy, high in fibre parts of the mix and instead just opt to eat the bits that are high in sugar. This completely defeats the point of trying to give them a balanced diet and can cause teeth and weight issues in the long run.
Here’s a list of a few other things considered unhealthy or harmful for your little pipsqueak:
- Citrus Fruits
As gerbils aren’t the most communicative of creatures, it can be incredibly difficult to spot whether they are suffering from pain or illness.
It’s therefore vital that you get to know your little gerbils individual behaviour and can spot when something’s not quite right, as well as understand some of the symptoms you need to be looking out for if you suspect they are ill.
Caring for a sick gerbil is an incredibly distressing and upsetting process which you’ll want to avoid and so the best thing to do is be able to spot any issues early on so they can be treated promptly or examined by a vet as quickly as possible
You can do this by examining them daily, ensuring you are on the lookout for anything that is out of sorts with their normal behaviour or physical health.
Spotting Symptoms & Health Checklist
Watch out for any of these signs of illness on a daily basis to ensure your gerbil is happy and healthy:
- Rapid weight loss or weight gain
- Not eating
- Runny eyes or nose
- Overgrown teeth
- A change in their usual behaviour, or agitated and distressed actions.
- Drinking much more or less than usual
- Lethargy or sleeping too much
- Lumps or swellings
- Skin issues
- A limp
- Unusual bleeding
- Signs of injury, unwilling to be touched
Teeth & Nails
The teeth of a gerbil never stop growing, which unfortunately means if they are not provided with sufficient food or items for chewing, their gnashers can become overly long.
This can result in a lot of pain and sometimes abscesses. They may also become misaligned or broken which can affect their ability to eat correctly.
Symptoms of teeth issues include lack of eating, dribbling and loss of weight. And of course – big teeth!
If you suspect they have teeth issues, only a vet will be able to correct them, so take them there as soon as possible.
Or you could just avoid dental issues altogether by ensuring your gerbils eat a healthy balanced diet! A gnawing block or some softwood branches also provide easy ways for them to naturally wear their teeth down.
Their nails can similarly become overgrown if they have not been walking enough on rough surfaces. If they have begun to develop a natural curve, this could become painful in time, and so you’ll need to trim them.
Have another adult calmly hold a gerbil on their lap while you examine their feet.
It’s important to use a torch to shine up underneath their feet, as this will help illuminate the nails and reveal the blood vessels which run through your gerbils nails.
That blood vessel is your boundary, and if possible you never even want to get close to it, because if caught or cut it will be very painful for your gerbil!
This can be avoided by simply taking off the smallest amount of nail you can, simply removing any obvious curve so that they can easily place their foot on a flat surface.
Gerbils are incredibly clean creatures and spend a lot of their time grooming themselves, meaning you don’t really have to contribute.
However, if you have noticed they’ve missed a spot or are beginning to look a little grubby, you can provide them with a rodent sand bath, a much-preferred method over washing them with water.
Simply fill a suitable container up shallowly with specialised chinchilla dust or rodent bathing sand and allow your gerbil to have a quick roll around in it!
When To Go To The Vet
You should seek the help of a veterinary professional as soon as you suspect or notice your gerbil in pain, ill or suffering.