Basic Gerbil Care

HOW MANY GERBILS DO I WANT?

Gerbils are social creatures, and should be kept in groups. However, DO NOT keep more than two females together. Females are the dominant sex, and putting more than two together will cause fighting that may result in the death of one or more of the gerbils. Also, if you are breeding, the females will fight over the male, and one female will most likely kill the other's babies. It is okay to keep more than one male with one female. The only downside to this is that, unless you see them mating, you may not know who the father of any of the babies is. It is also okay to keep larger groups of males together. Just be sure that there is adequate space (see below). The best way to introduce strange gerbils with each other is using the split cage method.

Sexing the gerbils 

HOUSING

There are three common ways to house gerbils: aquariums, plastic cages with tubes (such as Hartz, Habitrail, and S.A.M.--note that gerbils are known to chew these up over time), and wire cages like Crittertrail by Superpet (make sure the spaces between the wires are small enough that the gerbil cannot escape). Cages should be at least 10 gallons. The more gerbils kept together, the larger the cage should be. For groups of more than 2 gerbils, the cage should be at least 20 gallons, or have multiple cages connected with tubes. Cages must have a secure lid or door as gerbils are masters at climbing or jumping to escape. The most recommend house is the tank. The plastic is the worst. I personally do not even consider using one. Get a tank or a least a big Crittertrail Cage.

BEDDING
There are a number of different types of bedding available, such as pine, aspen, corncob, and paper. DO NOT, under any circumstances, use cedar or pine bedding with gerbils. It contains chemicals which are poisonous for gerbils. Corncob bedding are acceptable, however, pine has been known to cause respiratory infections, especially in young gerbils. Paper bedding like Carefresh is acceptable as well, but it tends not to be as absorbant. The best type of bedding to use is aspen, especially if you are breeding. There are no toxic chemicals and it is highly absorbant. Bedding should be changed every 2-3 weeks, or sooner if the cage looks dirty and/or smells. The cage should also be completely washed out every few months. I use dish soap for this. Make sure the cages are rinsed thoroughly when they are washed. Plastic tubes may need to be washed whenever the bedding is changed.

Paper towels, toilet paper, and kleenex can be added to make the bedding softer and give the gerbils something to chew on. Do not use material such as cloth, cotton, or wool. Gerbils can choke on this or get their paws tangled in it, resulting in injury.

You might also want to put an empty food can (make sure there are no sharp edges!), a glass or plastic jar, or a wood or cardboard box in the cage for them to build their nest in. Gerbils will usually build their nests under the water bottle or under tubes, if there are any. They like low overhead areas because it simulates their natural habitat and gives them a sense of security.

FOOD
The two most common type of food are seed mixes and lab blocks, which are seed mixes made into blocks with some of the fat removed. Seed mixes should have as few sunflower seeds as possible, due to the high fat content. They should have a variety of seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, millet, and other kinds of birdseed. The better mixes will also have dried fruit and vegetable pieces, pellets, corn, oats, and cat/dog kibble. Fresh vegetables and fruit such as carrots, apples, and bananas can also be given to gerbils. Avoid foods that are mostly water, as they will cause diarrhea. If they will eat them, gerbils can also be fed crickets and mealworms. For additional nutrition, vitamins can be added to the drinking water.

Some treats that I've found the gerbils like are: cheerios, oatmeal, raisins, pretzels, and popcorn.

Food can be put directly in the cage (not recommended) or in some kind of dish. The most common dishes are the commercial plastic or ceramic ones. However, coffee mugs, butter dishes, or (clean!!) ashtrays can be used. The dish should be heavy enough that it cannot be easily overturned by the gerbil. An overturned dish can trap a gerbil, resulting in injury and/or death. Note that gerbils will tend to chew on anything made out of plastic. I recommend ceramic dishes or coffee mugs because they are heavy enough that the gerbil should not be able to overturn it, and they are difficult for the gerbil to chew on.

Gerbils hoard their food, so if it is placed in a low container such as a dish or ashtray, they will immediately bury it under their bedding. They are less likely to do this with a container like a coffee mug, so the container will not have to be refilled as often. You can also use those small dog and cat food cans. Just be sure that the sharp parts are filed real good.

Many people like make their own gerbil food. This is Midnight Sun Rodentry Gerbil Food Mix recipe.

Special needs gerbils require a little extra care when feeding. Go here for some soft food ideas.

WATER
Gerbils do not require as much water as other animals, and they get most of their fluids from their food. However, it is necessary to keep a fresh water supply available to the gerbil. The best way to do this is using a water bottle, which can be purchased at a pet store. Dishes of water are not recommended because the gerbils will kick bedding in there, which gets messy, and they may also climb in the dish. Gerbils should not get wet.

BATHING
Gerbils are very clean animals and will bathe themselves and each other. It is very cute to watch gerbils bathe each other. :-) It will look like the one doing the bathing is biting the other one, but that is not happening. The one that is being bathed will lay on its stomach, side, or back, and will sometimes squeak. They enjoy it. It is like us getting a good back rub.

Gerbils can be given baths occasionally to remove excess oil and dirt from their fur. Chinchilla dust or cornmeal can be used for this. Put it in a container in the cage and the gerbils will climb in it and roll around in it. I prefer to use cornmeal because the gerbils can eat it, too.


TOYS AND EXERCISE

Gerbils are very active and playful animals, so it is important for them to have a variety of toys. For the inside of the cage, I recommend wood toys such and blocks, houses, and cubes with holes for the gerbils to crawl through. It is necessary for gerbils to have plenty of things to chew on, such as cardboard tubes. Gerbils need to chew or their teeth will become overgrown which can result in injury and/or death.

Wheels are another good source of fun and exercise for gerbils. However, the metal and plastic wheels with spaces between the bars are not safe for gerbils. They can get their tails and paws caught between the bars and seriously hurt themselves. If you do buy this type of wheel, wrap a strip of paper around the outside of it to avoid injury. The paper will need to be replaced occasionally because the gerbils will chew on it. The solid plastic wheels which can be attached to tubes are fine for gerbils.

Another source of fun and exercise for gerbils is plastic balls. These are available at pet stores. Gerbils will run around in them.

A "play area" for the gerbils can also be made. This can be made out of a large cardboard box (watch that they don't chew through it) or a large plastic container. The play area should contain tubes for them to run through and wood toys or small cardboard boxes for them to play in. An empty food can (make sure there are no sharp edges!) makes a great tunnel for gerbils to play in. If you are comfortable letting your gerbil run on your furniture, you can put these things on there as well.

Gerbils also enjoy playing with each other. Common games include chasing each other around the cage and wrestling. Wrestling will sometimes look like the gerbils are fighting, but they usually aren't. The gerbils may stand on their hind legs, go nose-to-nose, and push each other around. They also will roll around the cage with each other. They may squeak when they are playing. The only time to be concerned about this is if you see blood or bite marks on any of the gerbils, or if two gerbils become rolled up in a tight ball (not to be confused with sleeping curled up next to each other) and are going for each others necks. Then they are fighting and should be separated immediately.

There are some other gerbil behaviors which may also be observed. One behavior is marking, which looks much like mating. One gerbil will mount the other from behind for a few seconds. A gerbil's scent gland it on its belly, so one gerbil will rub the other's back to mark it with the scent.

Another behavior looks like the gerbils are biting each other's mouths. This behavior is very common with young gerbils. Gerbils will sometimes do this to get fluids from each other. It is also a form of greeting and a request for a bath.

Safe Woods for Gerbils - Gerbils Love to Chew

HANDLING

Gerbils are generally very tame and friendly animals, and respond well to being picked up and handled. I let mine climb around on me, and they also like to sit on my shoulders.

Gerbils should NEVER be picked up by the middle or tip of the tail. This can cause serious injury. Picking up a gerbil by the base of the tail is less harmful, but not recommended. The best way to pick one up is to let it climb into your hand, or by scooping it up from underneath it. It is also not recommended to pick gerbils up from the top of them. This may scare them, because in the wild, birds prey on gerbils by swooping down on top of them.

To allow gerbils to become used to you, put your hand inside their cage, palm up. You might also want to put some kind of treat in your hand. The gerbils will sniff at your hand and should eventually climb on it and allow you to pick them up. If a gerbil nips or bites you while you are doing this, pull your hand away and give the gerbil a soft tap on the nose.

When you are holding your gerbil you might notice it quivering, that is good sign. The gerbil is purring. You have a very happy gerbil.

INJURIES AND ILLNESSES

The most common injuries to gerbils are injured tails and paws, broken teeth, sores, and bloody noses.

A gerbil may lose part of its tail due to improper handling or an accident. Do not become too worried if this happens. If there is any bone protruding, it will dry up and fall off in a few days, and fur will grow back on the rest of the tail.

Gerbils may also occasionally break a paw. Broken paws will generally heal on their own. If there is bone protruding through the skin, however, the gerbil should be taken to the vet.

Gerbil teeth may break occasionally as well. If this happens, make sure the gerbil has plenty of soft food such as oatmeal, raisins, and soaked monkey chow. The teeth should grow back. If they do not grow back within a week or so, take the gerbil to a vet.

Sores and bloody noses are usually caused by excess scratching or an allergy. Most sores and bloody noses can be treated with a topical antibiotic such as neosporin. If a sore becomes infected, the gerbil should be taken to the vet.

Sometimes gerbils will have what looks like blood on their nose or in their eyes. This is not really blood. Gerbil tears and mucous have an antibacterial chemical in them which causes any build-up to look like blood. They will usually wash this off themselves. If an eye becomes matted shut because of excess build-up, it can be cleaned out with a damp cloth.

The most common illnesses in gerbils are Tyzzer's disease or wet tail, respiratory and ear infections, and strokes.

Wet tail is characterized by greenish diarrhea, listlessness, and lowered body temperature, and can be life-threatening if it is not treated immediately. The best form of treatment is tetracycline (packaged as ornacycline for birds) in the water, liquid medication packaged as wet tail treatment (follow the instructions on the package), which are both available at pet stores in America, and Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes. Infected gerbils should be quarantined and be sure to scrub your hands thoroughly before handling any other gerbils, as wet tail is highly contagious. It is also recommended to put tetracycline in the water of any other gerbils to prevent them from getting infected.

Respiratory and ear infections generally are not life-threatening if they are treated immediately and properly. Both can be treated with tetracycline, but if the gerbil does not improve, it should be taken to the vet. Respiratory infections are characterized by a clicking or wheezing noise in the gerbil's breathing. Ear infections are characterized by loss of balance and the head tilted to one side.

Strokes are also characterized by a loss of balance and the head tilted to one side. They may or may not be life-threatening. There is no real treatment for a stroke. Make sure the gerbil is comfortable and is eating and drinking.

Any injured or sick gerbil should be kept as comfortable as possible. Make sure the gerbil is eating and drinking. If it is not, you will need to give it fluids using a syringe. You can also grind up some food into a powder, mix it with water, and feed it to the gerbil using a syringe. If the gerbil's body temperature has dropped, put a heat pad under the cage or put the cage under a lamp to keep the gerbil warm. Call the vet if needed. Gerbils can be taken to the vet like any other pet.

For more information about gerbil injuries and illnesses go to the American Gerbil Society home page. There are links to both of these sites on my gerbil links page.

Drug Therapy in Pet Rodents - what is safe or toxic for our little pets. A good source! (added 06 January 2010)

Gerbil Pup Development - I have babies!!


Supplies to Buy Before Buying a New Pet    A++ Book Recommend: Gerbils by Donna Anastasi  or at Amazon.com and check the reviews.


Counter Started 11 March 2005

Updated 21 July 2011