How to look after a gerbil
Gerbils make really interesting pets and they will fit in well with most family environments. They are naturally inquisitive, very rarely bite and are found in lots of different colours. There are around about 90 species of gerbil, however the Mongolian is the most commonly found one kept as a pet. They can sometimes be mistaken for mice or rats, but they actually look and behave very differently. Gerbils have long, hairy tails and, as you will find out, they are serious diggers! I hope you will enjoy the following information on how to look after a gerbil.
One of the big advantages of gerbils is that because they originate from desert and dry grassland areas, they do not produce much urine and waste. This means it is fairly easy to keep their environment clean and free from smells. They are very sociable and should not be kept alone. They do however breed from three months old (and sometimes even earlier) and can produce a litter of four to ten babies every 24 days. This is why it’s best to keep pairs or small groups of the same sex.
Only buy gerbils from a knowledgeable breeder or good pet shop where the assistants know how to care for them and are able to handle the gerbils confidently. They should be in clean accommodation of good size (see below for guidelines) with food and fresh water always available. Cages should also have beds and bedding. Babies should not be bought until they are at least five to six weeks old. Any one offering gerbils for sale at a younger age than this should not be trusted.
The males will become sexually mature at 10 to 12 weeks old and females at 9 to 11 weeks old. Females can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth, so it is very important that males and females are kept separate in pet shops or wherever you will be buying them from. The staff in the shop should be able to show you how to tell the difference between males and females. If staff aren’t sure, you may end up with a pregnant gerbil and a litter of unwanted baby gerbils.
Gerbil cages and living spaces
In the wild, gerbils live in underground tunnels up to 3m long with several entries and chambers. The best way to copy this natural habitat and keep them happy is to house them in a large tank or old aquarium. The enclosure should have a secure wire lid and plenty of material for them to dig and tunnel into. This is a big difference between looking after gerbils and mice/hamsters. Wire cages are not suitable because the bedding will be kicked out. You can also get gerbilariums or tanks with cage additions which are ideal for this type of pet.
Two gerbils need a minimum floor surface of 40cm x 75cm, by at least 30cm tall because they are very good jumpers. It is important to keep the tank or aquarium away from draughts and direct sunlight or heat. As these little animals are most active during the evening and more occasionally during the day, you might not want to keep their tank in a bedroom. You are not likely to disturb them, but they will certainly disturb you!
Gerbils need a thick layer of dust extracted bedding to dig into. Organic soil or peat are great natural beddings for your gerbil along with meadow or Timothy hay, plus shredded paper for nesting. Don’t use fluffy material as this may wrap around gerbils’ limbs and injure them. Gerbils also will like a nest box, but this should not be made of wood or plastic, which they are likely to chew. A clay flowerpot cut in half makes a good sleeping area. A dust bath of chinchilla sand (available from most pet shops) should be provided so the gerbil can keep its coat clean and in good condition.
What food do gerbils like?
Most gerbil owners like to feed commercial mixes as the basis of their pets’ diet but they should also be given fresh vegetables and fruit. Earthenware or stainless steel feed bowls should be used. They may bury their feed bowl underneath their bedding, but don’t worry about this as it is natural for them to store and hoard food.
Gerbils will enjoy apples, carrots, broccoli, sprouts and cauliflower. Lettuce can be given occasionally but only in very small amounts. Don’t feed potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves as these are poisonous. Also ensure your gerbils have a constant supply of fresh water. This should be provided in a free-access water bottle fixed inside the tank. This is because water bowls will be tipped over and buried. The water bottle should ideally have a metal tip to reduce the risk of chewing.
Keeping your gerbil healthy
A healthy gerbil has bright eyes, a glossy coat and is alert and lively – apart from in the daytime when they will generally be sleepy. A runny or sticky nose or eyes, dull coat and/or lethargy, are signs of ill health and will generally need veterinary advice. Like other rodents, gerbils have upper incisor teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives.
They keep their teeth at the right length by gnawing on things, so provide a small branch from a fruit tree, such as apple (check it has not been sprayed with pesticides) or wooden chew toys which are available from good pet shops or online.
Exercising and entertaining your gerbil
Gerbils love to dig and burrow, so make sure they have enough bedding to do this to their hearts’ content. They have enormous fun with cardboard tubes, like toilet roll tubes, and will run through them and chew them. They also like fruit tree branches to climb on and, if you will put a flat rock in the tank, they may use it as a lookout point.
Gerbils naturally live in a group, so it’s not fair to keep one on its own as a pet. If you buy two or more baby gerbils of the same sex and from the same litter or harmonious group, they should get on well. However, adult gerbils (over ten weeks old) can be aggressive towards any newcomers to the group.
Females can often be more aggressive than males. If you have to introduce an older gerbil it is best to split the tank with a wire frame so they can see and smell, but not injure each other and then swap sides so that the tank picks up the scent of both gerbils. After three or four days they should settle together without a barrier, but it’s important to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t fight and injure each other.
Handling your gerbil
Gerbils are usually friendly and happy to be handled although some can be timid. Start by placing your hand in the tank so that the gerbils can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them (make sure your hands are clean with no fragrances first). 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 as it can easily be injured. Children should only handle gerbils under adult supervision in case they accidentally squeeze too hard.
Gerbils as children’s pets
Gerbils are quick and agile and young children could find it quite difficult to hold them without squeezing too hard. If you have young children and want them to be able to handle their pet, it may be better to choose a different species. For older children, gerbils can make entertaining pets but it’s important that an adult is responsible for, and interested in, overseeing their care and well-being.
- Female gerbils breed from the age of about three months and males from ten weeks, so it is best to keep pairs or small groups of the same sex
- Gerbils should always have access to water – just providing fresh fruit and vegetables is not enough
- Pet gerbils should have things to chew, such as an apple tree branch, or wooden toys
- Gerbils are most active during the evening
If you would like further information on choosing a gerbil cage, please click here.
For information on hamsters, please click here.please click here.
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