Gerbils are from a wide variety of places, from Africa through to the Middle East and Asia. They are adapted to a desert environment and so do not tend to drink a lot of water, and tend to eat about half the amount that similar size small pets do, therefore producing less waste.
They generally live for two to three years and a healthy adult should weigh 46g to 131g depending on age and sex.
Gerbils are very sociable and live in colonies in the wild. They are best kept in single-sex pairs or groups, and can become very depressed if kept on their own. However, do not introduce new gerbils once your gerbils are over 10 weeks of age, as it is likely they will fight. It is best to get them from the same litter. Females are also more likely to fight than males.
Gerbils love to burrow and build tunnels, so you will need to have a deep layer of wood shavings for burrowing. Plastic gerbilariums are the best type of cage to get, but you can also use hamster cages. If using a gerbilarium, you can fill the bottom of the cage with peat or soil, to aid the gerbils with their tunnel-building. Systems with lots of tubes and tunnels are great for gerbils, so long as they have the appropriate room in the system to allow them to burrow. Gerbils also love to gnaw, so provide lots of toys and tubes to chew on.
Gerbils are very clean animals and like to use dust baths for cleaning themselves in. You can buy special containers to put the dust in, but you could use a large metal pet food bowl. Put the dust bath into their cage for them to use a few times a week, but make sure it is removed after 30 minutes, or they may use it as a toilet.
They will tend to use one area of the cage for a toilet, but do produce a lot less waste than other small pets. Ensure you have a nest box with nesting material inside. As they are fairly clean animals, their cage will need to be cleaned only once a fortnight, but clean the toilet area more frequently. Keep the cage away from direct sunlight, draughts and loud noises.
Give your gerbils a few days to themselves when you get home before trying to touch them. When you approach them, crouch down and speak very softly. Let them come to you – perhaps hold a treat in your hand for them to have, and be patient. They may not come to you the first time you try this. Once they are happy for you to have your hands near them, gently scoop the gerbil into your hands and slowly lift them close to your chest or on your lap. It is important to handle your gerbils regularly to develop their confidence and maintain your relationship with them.
NEVER pick your gerbil up by its tail, as it can be very painful and cause a condition called ‘tail-slip’. This is where the thin skin on the tail can tear off, exposing underlying tissue and bone. The only treatment for this is tail amputation.
Gerbils do not need to be groomed, as they will clean themselves in their dust baths.
Neutering is not routinely performed in gerbils as any anaesthetic can prove risky for them. If you do not want your gerbils to have litters, then keep males and females in separate cages.
You should be feeding your gerbil a good quality pelleted food. Ensure you choose a nugget food, rather than muesli-style. With the muesli-style diets, they pick out the parts that they like and leave the parts that they don’t, which means that they may not get all of their required nutrients. Nugget-style pellets prevent this selective feeding, as each pellet has an equal amount of nutrients. You can also give your gerbil some fresh greens, but not too many! Try to choose foods that are low in fat, such as carrot and apple. Pumpkin seeds also make great treats. Sunflower seeds are also favourites, but are very high in fat, so try to avoid feeding these if possible. Take care if you are thinking of changing foods, and always ensure you change foods over gradually over a period of 10 days.
Common Health Problems
Dental Problems: Gerbils’ teeth grow continuously for their entire life, so it is important to give them the correct diet to ensure their teeth do not become overgrown. Typical symptoms of overgrown teeth are excessive drooling and loss of appetite. Providing wooden toys and treats to gnaw on can help to wear your pet’s teeth down.
Sores: Gerbils can develop sores around the mouth and nose area from burrowing in rough cage material or rubbing against cage bars if they’re bored. If this happens, change the cage material and provide toys and exercise equipment such as chew toys, tunnels and wheels. If the sores are causing your pet any pain and discomfort, or are inflamed and oozing pus, then contact your vet immediately.
General Wellbeing: A healthy gerbil will be active, playful and inquisitive with soft, shiny fur, bright eyes and a clean nose. Signs of illness include lethargy, ruffled fur, mucus around the eyes or nose, and loss of appetite. A gerbil’s teeth should not be visible when its mouth is closed and there should be a fine covering of fur over its ears.