Gerbils are burrowing rodents that adapted to desert environments in Asia, Africa, and India. There are many species, but the Mongolian gerbil species is most commonly kept as a pet. They are considered to be friendly, active, gentle pets who love to dig and create burrows/tunnels. Gerbils are also intelligent and love to play with toys. They are very social and rely on olfactory (smell) cues, foot drumming, and an array of vocalizations.
Gerbils are popular pets because they tend to be easy to care for and are clean with minimal odor, but they do have some special requirements to keep them happy and healthy.
Due to their social nature, gerbils need to live in a pair or group. The lifespan for a gerbil is typically 3-4 years.
Gerbils are diurnal meaning they are active during the day and night. They are very fast moving therefore, they are not suitable pets for young children, and all children should be supervised by an adult when handling.
All pets, including gerbils, need regular examinations. Gerbils can occasionally get sick, and their illnesses can be severe. All newly adopted gerbils should be examined by a qualified veterinarian (who's knowledgeable about gerbils) within two weeks of adoption.
Many problems are caused by misinformation, and the first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from making a mistake. While gerbils don't require routine vaccinations, an annual exam and parasite check is recommended.
Gerbils can be affected by many diseases – usually once it's noticed your gerbil is sick, it is likely very severe. Being vigilant about what is normal and abnormal for your gerbil can be lifesaving.
Common signs that something may be wrong with your gerbil include:
- Most often this does not require medical attention but would recommend contacting your veterinarian. It's usually brought on by changes in the environment, stress, or handling.
- Hair loss/redness on face
- Rough coat
- Lumps/bumps (most common with the scent gland)
- Of note, all gerbils have a scent gland in the middle of their belly. It's usually a shade darker than your gerbil's coat color and hairless.
- Not eating/drinking or an increase in drinking
- Weight loss or gain
- Abnormal behavior
- Discharge from nose or eyes
- Difficulty breathing
If you notice any symptoms of illness, contact your veterinarian promptly.
Gerbils are omnivores – they eat plant and animal products.
Pelleted or block-type diets are available for gerbils and are formulated to be nutritionally complete. The pellets should contain 18-20 percent protein and you should provide about 1 teaspoon a day per gerbil. Seed mix food, however, should not be given. These diets are often high in fat and gerbils tend to pick out their favorite bits from the mix, which may mean they are not eating a balanced diet.
While rodent blocks should make the basic diet, a variety of fresh foods can be used to supplement the diet. Try small amounts of fruits and vegetables such as peas, broccoli, carrots, apples, bananas, oats, pumpkin, basil, parsley, yogurt, mealworms, lean meats, and on occasion eggs, cereal, unsalted nuts, or tofu. It’s important to avoid foods that are high in fat like seeds and a lot of nuts.
It’s best to scatter some of their food over the bedding in the cage to promote natural foraging and prevent fighting. Also provide a heavy ceramic food dish. A water bottle with a sipper tube can be used for water. Make sure a supply of fresh clean water is always available.
Gerbils are like hamsters in that they hoard their food. When cleaning the cage, it’s not uncommon to find hidden stashes of food in the corners. Make sure to remove any hoarded stale food daily.
Again, gerbils are very social animals, and it's recommended that they not be housed individually. They should be in a same sex pair or group. Littermates typically do well together. Never house two strange gerbils together without slow introduction which can take several weeks.
Cage: A gerbil cage should be large and well-ventilated. Aquariums with secure wire mesh tops are the best cage to house gerbils. This provides the ability to give your gerbil the deep substrate it needs for digging. It's not recommended to use plastic cages due to chewing habits of gerbils and poor ventilation, or wire cages gerbils commonly kick out the bedding and can get their legs stuck.
In terms of size, it's reported that a single gerbil should not be housed in anything smaller than a 20-gallon tank with a minimum height of 18-20 inches. At minimum, aim for at least 12 inches x 24 inches x 12 inches. Also, be aware that gerbils often stand erect on their hindlimbs, so the floor needs to be solid, and the height of the cage needs to be able to accommodate this natural behavior (an adult gerbil can stand approximately 5 inches tall).
The habitat size will need to increase with the more gerbils you have.
Location: The cage should ideally be placed in a relatively quiet location but still near the social activity in the home. Keep the cage away from direct sunlight, drafts, and other pets such as dogs and cats. Gerbils are sensitive to high frequency sounds — including television, computers, and vacuum cleaners — so it's best to house them away from these high traffic areas.
Since they are accustomed to dry climates, gerbils are sensitive to high humidity. An area with low humidity (35-50%) is ideal with a temperature between 60-70°F. The location should also provide a light and dark cycle.
Bedding: The inside of the enclosure should be lined with absorbent, paper-based bedding (unscented only). It's best to avoid all wood shavings.
The most important part of bedding is the depth. Gerbils are naturally burrowing animals, so they need to have at least 6-8 inches in depth of substrate.
A nest box should be provided, either store-bought or homemade. Make sure it has multiple openings and can get dark. This is most often where your gerbil will sleep and store food. A cardboard box makes a perfectly acceptable nest box, but plan to replace it often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side, or a section of PVC drainpipe (no less than 5” in diameter). Store-bought boxes are good too, but keep in mind that wooden ones can be hard to clean if they get urine on them, and plastic ones might get chewed up fairly quickly.
You'll also want to provide some nesting material which the gerbil can shred and use to line their nest box. Paper or cardboard (no ink), egg cartons, facial tissues, empty toilet rolls, and paper towels all work well. Do not give your gerbil any material that can become thin strands like cotton or fluffy material.
Cleaning: Gerbils require less frequent cleaning than other pets. They excrete little urine and produce fecal pellets that are hard and dry.
Remove soiled bedding, droppings, and stale food daily. Water and food bowls should also be cleaned daily.
They rely heavily on scent cues so a complete cleaning can be very stressful to your gerbil. Instead, it's best to spot clean frequently to keep complete cage cleaning to a minimum. Try to keep some old non-soiled bedding and nesting material to keep their scent. You can use warm soapy water and make sure to rinse well. Clean every one to two weeks.
Exercise: Gerbils are very active so exercise wheels are a must. Your gerbil should be able to run in the wheel without its back arching too much. They usually require about an 8-9 inch wheel. Make sure the wheel has solid flooring. We do not recommend using exercise saucers.
You'll also want to provide an out of cage exercise area. Feel free to get creative or use a commercially made playpen. This provides a great opportunity for bonding as well. Remember to never leave your gerbil unsupervised.
Do not use an exercise ball. This is likely to cause more stress and potential harm to your gerbil.
Cage accessories: Gerbils require a shady secluded area to sleep and hide such as a small box, igloo, or flowerpot (on its side). Offer different sleeping options for your gerbil to choose from.
Provide different levels for your gerbil to climb on and investigate. Cardboard tubes, ladders, tunnels, PVC pipes, grapevines, and plastic igloos provide them with opportunities to run, climb, hide, and tunnel.
Gerbils need to chew to keep their teeth from overgrowing and should be offered a variety of items to chew on. An untreated, unpainted piece of hardwood, wood blocks, twig, hay cube, coconut shells, lava, or even a dog rawhide is an appropriate chew toy. Avoid anything made of soft plastic.
Place a rough surfaced object like a stone which can help wear down their nails and provide structure for burrows.
Sand baths: A sand bath should be provided so your gerbil can keep themselves clean. A gerbil should never be bathed with water. There are many options of sand houses/boxes but usually a shallow tray will work just fine. Sand grains are NOT dust or powder. Make sure to not use a dust product, product with added nutrients (calcium), or fragrance. Follow the product label instructions on how much sand to add or an average of ½ to 1 inch should be enough for your gerbil to roll around in. Clean the sand bath as often as needed or at least weekly.
Daily handling is important from a stimulation standpoint, but also to help keep them tame and make them a little more friendly. You must be calm and confident. Gerbils are timid animals and startle easily. If they feel threatened, they may thump their hindfeet rapidly and/or nip.
To get your gerbil used to being handled, start by hand feeding your gerbil small treats. When they seem comfortable with taking treats, gently scoop them up using two hands. Once the gerbil is successfully hand-tamed, you can start allowing them supervised romps outside of their cage for short periods of time. Make sure the exercise area has been checked for dangers and can be secured so they can’t escape. A gerbil’s eyesight is not very good. Take extra care to make sure they don’t fall or hurt themselves when exercising outside of the cage.
It's important to never grab, hold, or pull on your gerbil’s tail! Picking up your gerbil by the tail can result in fur loss or cause the skin on the tail to “slip off.” If this occurs, their tail usually must be amputated.