Category: gerbils

Gerbils: how to tame

Taming a gerbil requires some patience to gain their trust, but it will make handling your gerbils much easier and it is also extremely rewarding.

Here are some simple steps to follow:

  • Give new gerbils a few days to adjust to their new home before handling them – keep maintenance and interaction to a minimum.
  • Move slowly and speak softly around the gerbils.
  • Limit interaction to times when the gerbil is awake – waking a gerbil isn’t a good way to gain its trust!
  • Initially just sit next to cage to acclimate gerbils to your presence.
  • Offer a treat (sunflower or pumpkin seeds) when the gerbil approaches the cage bars.
  • Once the gerbil take treats from your hand through the bars of the cage, open the cage door and offer a treat through that.
  • Once taking treats this way, place a treat on your open hand to entice the gerbil to step up onto your hand to retrieve it.
  • Place a treat on your forearm and allow the gerbil to climb onto your hand and up your arm.
  • When your gerbil is comfortable with your hand, try gently scratching the sides and back of the head – this immitates the natural grooming behaviour of gerbils.
  • Avoid chasing or grabbing the gerbils to get them back into their cage if they have been out. Rather, try to entice the gerbils back with their favorite treats or try to gently herd them back to the cage.
  • Handle your gerbils regularly to keep them well socialised.
  • Gerbils are active and curious and will appreciate daily time outside the cage.

Gerbil fans say that gerbils make good pets due to their temperament, and ease of care. They tend to be easily tamed and are not as skittish as some other small rodents.

They also aren’t as inclined to bite unless threatened (as always there are exceptions), and are easy to handle. Coming from a dry natural habitat they are designed to conserve water, so produce scant urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they are quite territorial.

Gerbils: how to handle

Generally, frequent handling will keep your gerbil quite tame. If your gerbil is difficult to handle, and all else fails, bribery with their favourite food, for example sunflower seeds, can help make a gerbil more amenable to handling. Gerbils are particularly difficult to catch if they escape from their cage, so bribery with their favourite food will definitely help in this situation!

Here are some handy hints on picking up gerbils…

  • Never pick up a gerbil by the tail – they are delicate and can easily break.
  • The best way to carry a gerbil is to simply cup them in the palm of your hand. It is also possible to gently hold them by the scruff of the neck (the loose skin on the back of the neck) to prevent the gerbil from getting away, if necessary.
  • If absolutely necessary you can hold a gerbil firmly by first holding them by the scruff of the neck, and then holding the base of the tail with the other hand (cradling the gerbil’s back in the palm of the hand holding the neck). You must only hold the very base of the tail as close to the body as possible, and not too tightly.
  • If you are not comfortable picking up an untamed gerbil as above, then allow the gerbil to walk into a cup or can turned on its side, and then tip the cup up to carry the gerbil. Place a hand over the cup as gerbils can jump surprisingly well. You can also use a cardboard tube, e.g. from a paper towel roll, for this purpose.

Gerbils: how to give a health check

Gerbils are generally very healthy robust little creatures who never have a day’s illness in their lives, however just occasionally they do suffer from various ailments. If recognized early, your vet can treat most of these successfully. Gerbils are incredibly healthy compared to most other pet rodents, and 90% of them never need veterinary treatment. If you spend a lot of time with your pets, then it is likely that you would soon notice if anything were wrong.

If a gerbil is huddled in a corner all by itself, its fur is all bedraggled and it looks miserable, then something is definitely wrong and you should seek immediate veterinary treatment. Try offering a sunflower seed, if the gerbil does not immediately seize on it and eat it, then you should be very worried.

If a gerbil makes a clicking or rasping noise, it probably has a chest infection. This is particularly common in young gerbils just passed weaning and elderly gerbils when the weather is abnormally cold or hot. Prompt antibiotic treatment is essential.

All gerbils have a scent gland in the middle of their tummy. This is long, thin and yellow in colour, and is sometimes mistaken for a wound or tumour.

Gerbils mark their territory by rubbing their scent gland on it. Male gerbils kept with other males are particularly prone to scent gland tumours which is caused by excessive marking of territory. It usually starts off just looking like a pimple, and sometimes never develops beyond this stage, but sometimes it grows rapidly and starts to bleed.

Although it does not spread to other parts of the body, it can grow internally as well as externally and compromise internal organs. If the tumour bleeds, it can also get infected. Removal is a simple surgical procedure and almost always results in 100% cure, so is well worth the expense.

Sore noses are one of the most common gerbil health problems. They can be caused by allergy to bedding, especially cedar, over-enthusiastic burrowing with the nose, or stress.

Whatever the initial cause, the main problem is that a sore nose can become infected with bacteria and will need treating with an antibiotic ointment.

Often the first time an owner realizes there is a tooth problem, is when the gerbil rapidly loses weight but otherwise appears healthy.

On examination it will be found to have lost one or more of its front teeth. This means it cannot eat its usual food and needs a soft diet, e.g. baby food, biscuit crumb, bread soaked in milk. Usually the tooth grows back again within a week.

Meanwhile, the gerbil cannot gnaw and the remaining teeth may grow too long and require trimming.

You should examine your gerbil’s coat regularly. The odd scab, especially around the base of the tail, probably indicates fighting has broken out. This may have been a trivial argument over an extra-large sunflower seed, but it may also be a warning of worse to come, so be aware and monitor the situation carefully.

External parasites are rare on gerbils, however if your gerbil has an inflamed, scabby, bald round patch on its coat, then it could just possibly be ringworm. Ringworm is highly contagious, so take no chances and consult your vet.

It comes as something of a shock when your gerbil suddenly emerges minus half of its tail. The gerbil’s tail with its striking black tip, is designed so it is easily shed if caught by a predator.

The same thing can happen if you pick up the gerbil by the tip of its tail or if the gerbil gets its tail trapped underneath something – it might look awful, and there will be a lot of blood and the tail bone will be exposed, but 99% of broken tails heal without veterinary treatment. Within a few days, the bone just withers away and the gerbil is left with half a tail. It many not look as beautiful but its ability to get around and generally get on with its life won’t be impeded in any way.

Head tilt

A tendency to go round in circles or hold its head in a tilted position suggest an inner ear problem. It could be an infection, so antibiotic treatment is a good precaution. However, the cause is more likely to be a small cyst-like growth in the ear. Once a gerbil has developed a head-tilt, it will never go away.


If your gerbil is limping or holding one of its paws in the air, it could have a sprain or even a small break in one of its limbs. Unless the animal looks in distress, it is best to leave it alone and let it heal naturally. In most cases it will do so without veterinary treatment.

If your gerbil appears paralyzed down one side or is dragging its hind legs, it could have had a stroke. There is not a lot you can do apart from keeping it warm and making sure it has access to food and water. This may mean you have to feed it by hand. If the gerbil is going to recover, it should do so within a week.

A slight disability such as a limp may always remain. If the gerbil does not recover sufficiently to allow it to have a reasonable quality of life, then it may be kinder to have it put to sleep.

Genital problems

Females that have had many litters occasionally get a prolapse of the uterus, and males occasionally get swollen penises. Both of these conditions should be seen to by a vet who will administer appropriate treatment.

Gerbils: housing

In the wild gerbils live in burrows and spend the most of their time foraging for food, so you should try to mimic this environment for your gerbil when creating a home for him. Your gerbil will need plenty of room to eat, sleep and run around.

Gerbils should be kept in pairs or groups. Depending on the number of gerbils you have, you must make sure that the housing you choose is big enough for all of them.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they can be quite territorial.

Gerbils go through several sleep/active cycles in a 24 hours period, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Gerbils need to be kept indoors and careful thought must be given to where the cage will be kept. The temperature in the room should be constant, away from direct sunlight and draughts, and out of reach of any other pets.

Coming from a dry natural habitat gerbils are designed to conserve water, so produce small amounts of urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

A pair of gerbils don’t require a huge amount of space, but a tank of approximately 75 x 40 x 30cm will give them enough room to run about in and plenty of space to put in lots of toys.

The larger the tank the nicer it will be for your gerbils, allowing them more space to run around in and for creativity with furnishings and toys. If an aquarium is used, a ventilated lid will be necessary because gerbils can jump very well!

A wire cage with fairly narrow wire spacing will also work well. Plastic and wooden cages do not hold up very well to the gerbils’ chewing habits.

Ideally the cage will have two levels and two compartments so they can use one for the day and one to nest and hide in at night-time. Gerbils prefer to sleep separately at night, so you need to make sure each gerbil has their own nesting areas.

You could also provide an extra run for your gerbil so he can get extra exercise when you are about. However gerbils tend to be frightened of large open spaces, but once they get used to it they will love playing in a run that contains lots of toys, such as boxes, flowerpots, drain pipes and logs.

A wheel should be provided for exercise, but the wheel should be modified or wrapped, e.g. with duct tape, to provide a solid surface for them to run on and to prevent their tails from getting caught and injured in the open rungs of a typical hamster wheel.

Gerbils will explore and enjoy a variety of toys, such as empty toilet paper rolls, small boxes and nests. Keep in mind the gerbil will chew everything you put in its cage so make sure toys are non toxic and not harmful if accidentally ingested.

Gerbils: feeding a healthy diet

In the wild, gerbils live partly on dry seeds, but these are emergency rations for when something more nutritious is not available. Gerbils need some animal protein in their diet, so they will eat insects; but also eat fresh vegetable material.

It is recommended to feed a good variety of foods and leaving seed mixtures until completely eaten; otherwise some gerbils will pick out sunflower seeds and corn from seed mixtures, leaving the high protein, low fat seeds behind.

A good quality commercial gerbil mix will take the place of the seed part of your gerbil’s diet and you can feed a mixture of fruit and vegetables as well as a source of animal protein. The protein can be provided in the form of some complete cat food, chopped hard-boiled egg or insects.

To keep your pet trim, use fatty sunflower seeds and peanuts only as a treat. Feed the gerbils only what they’ll eat at the time, although this can be difficult to ascertain since they will take much of their food and bury it around the cage.

Gerbils enjoy fruits and vegetables, so try giving pears, apples, carrots and lettuce, and supply some untreated wood for them to have a chew on.

If you want to give your gerbils live insects, you will need to find a pet shop that specialises in reptile feeds. Lots of small lizards have to be fed on live insects, and things like mealworms and crickets are bred for this purpose. If you get insects from a shop, you can be sure they’ve had no contact with insecticides or other harmful chemicals. Crickets are better than mealworms for two reasons:

  1. Mealworms just sit there, but the gerbil gets exercise chasing the more active crickets.
  2. Mealworms are very, very low in calcium, which is essential for good bone strength – if gerbils eat too many mealworms, it can upset their calcium balance.

No, you don’t! Feeding live insects is probably only possible if you keep your gerbil in a big aquarium tank. If you don’t feed live insects, try cheese, meat, egg or yoghurt.

It isn’t a good idea to feed too many sunflower seeds, as they are high in fat and low in calcium. Commercial gerbil mixes do contain some sunflower seeds, and in small quantities these will do no harm, but they should not be a significant part of the diet.

However, gerbils particularly like sunflower seeds; you will notice that your gerbil will take out and eat all the sunflower seeds first; so you will need to make sure you do not feed too much mix otherwise your gerbil will eat his favourite seeds and not much else!

The best gerbil mixes are those that contain animal protein. These are sold in sealed packs, with a sell by date on them, this ensures the food is fresh and you can also check the vitamin content on the packet. When buying this type of gerbil food, be sure to buy small quantities, this will ensure the food is always fresh. Once you have opened a new packet, store it in an airtight, insect-proof container.

Gerbils normally thrive on a good quality gerbil mix, but they may have deficiency problems when fed home-made diets, sunflower seed diets or table scraps which lack specific nutrients. Signs of deficiencies will manifest as in other mammals. A feeding level of 5 grams of gerbil mix per day has been recommended to prevent obesity, which can predispose them to islet cell hyperplasia and hyperglycemia.

Gerbils: epilepsy

Gerbils can suffer from spontaneous epileptiform seizures (epilepsy). These seizures may be precipitated by sudden stress, handling or introduction to a novel environment. Incidence of this syndrome is about 20% in natural populations.

Epilepsy appears to be inherited, and both seizure-resistant and seizure-sensitive strains have been developed by selective breeding. Inbred animals can have up to 100% incidence.

Seizures vary in severity from mild hypnotic episodes, characterized by cessation of activity and twitching of the pinnae and vibrissae, to severe myoclonic convulsions followed by tonic extensor rigidity. Post-seizure fatality occurs in <1% of affected animals.

There is no permanent damage – seizure onset occurs at 2-3 months of age with seizure incidence and severity increasing with age until the animal reaches six months of age.

A refractory period of up to five days can follow more severe seizures.

Research has shown that the seizure response can be almost completely suppressed in genetically predisposed animals if they are frequently stimulated by handling during the first three weeks of life.

No – anticonvulsant therapy is neither necessary nor recommended.

Gerbils: behaviour

Gerbils make nice pets and are fascinating to watch. Gerbils are very social animals, and it is not a good idea to keep them singly. Pair bonded or family units of gerbils are usually quite affectionate with each other.

Gerbils love to play, chasing each other around, wrestling and boxing. They will also groom one another, sleep in piles, and cuddle together. Your gerbils will be much happier if kept at least in pairs (same sex unless you plan to breed, which requires a lot more care).

Some gerbils will fight, although this is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the play wrestling or boxing behaviour commonly exhibited. Often, one animal will appear distressed and loud high pitched squeaks may be heard, and the behaviour appears more intense and violent than play.

Some gerbils, however, just cannot seem to get along. Young gerbils in the wild are sent off to find their own territories, so family groups may begin fighting as the babies mature. If so, they need to be separated.

If you have a single gerbil, or if one of a pair dies, it can be very difficult to introduce a new gerbil, especially mature gerbils, i.e. greater than 8-10 weeks old.

It is best to keep a group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age, but if you need to introduce older gerbils, try and follow this advice:

  • Get a divided cage, or use a cage within a cage, to allow the gerbils to see and smell each other with no contact.
  • Place one gerbil in each side of the divider.
  • Several times a day, swap the gerbils from side to side, so that the gerbils get used to each others’ scent.
  • Once the gerbils appear curious and not aggressive to each other, the divider can be removed (about 3 days, usually).
  • Watch for 20 minutes, wearing leather gloves, so that the gerbils can be separated if fighting occurs.
  • If the gerbils fight, go back to the divided cage stage and repeat. If two or three tries with the divided cage trick doesn’t stop the fighting, they may never get along.
  • If there is no fighting after 20 minutes, the gerbils can be left as long as you are nearby if any problems arise. If they cuddle up to sleep, they will likely be okay.

Sometimes certain gerbils just don’t get along, so if gerbils persist in fighting, it may be necessary to just keep them separated.

This is something gerbils do when they are either excited or stressed, as a warning to other gerbils. The thumping is produced by pounding both hind legs on the ground.

Often, if one gerbil is startled and begins thumping, others in the enclosure or room will also begin thumping. It varies in loudness and tempo, depending on the urgency or meaning, but can be quite loud considering gerbils are so small!

The infectious nature of the thumping means that if some activity in the home produces a rhythmic thumping or clicking type noise, the gerbils may join in.

Young gerbils may do quite a bit of thumping, but often it seems that it is just a learning activity rather than a danger warning. Thumping is also an important part of the mating ritual.

Gerbils will often groom themselves, including each another.

As well as the benefits to their coats, this is an important part of their social interaction. Gerbils also appreciate being offered sand so they can have a dust bath – they will roll and play in the sand, which helps to clean their fur.

Gerbils make a high pitched squeaking noise, but this is usually as youngsters. Adults usually only vocalize when playing, if they’re excited or if stressed.

Gerbils, like most other rodents, are avid chewers and will chew their way through everything, even their cage furnishings, somewhat regularly.

It is important to provide appropriate chewing toys, like wooden blocks and branches, to allow the gerbils to indulge this natural chewing and gnawing activity.

In the wild, gerbils live in a complex system of tunnels and burrows, so it is nice to allow your gerbil to have room to burrow in their enclosure. A deep layer of wood shavings combined with hay will provide the perfect material to allow your gerbil to do some burrowing.

Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen, and this is used to mark items in their territory. Gerbils that rub their stomachs on their cage furnishings are simply marking their territory.

Gerbils: a history

Gerbils, i.e. Mongolian gerbils, are small rodents with long furry tails that have a tuft of fur at the end. They are larger than mice, but smaller than typical hamsters (syrian hamsters, not dwarf hamsters).

The wild type coloration is “agouti”, where each hair is banded, usually gray next to the skin, then a yellowish colour, then ticked with black, with off-white hair on the belly. However, through selective breeding, several lovely colour variations are now seen.

In their dry native habitats of Asia and Africa gerbils have few natural enemies and seem more curious than fearful of humans. The Mongolian gerbil, the most common species sold in stores, is a born burrower and will develop networks of tunnels with food storage, nesting, and sleeping sites. Gerbils are 4-6 inches long, excluding the tail, and have a lifespan of 3-5 years.

The gerbil family is made up of roughly 100 species. There are 14 basic groups of gerbils. The species most commonly kept as pets is the Mongolian Gerbil, whose scientific name is Meriones unguiculatus. Gerbils whose scientific name begin with “Meriones” are also known as “jirds” which roughly means “large desert rodent”.

The Mongolian gerbil is therefore also known as the Clawed Jird. Other jirds also kept as pets include Sundevall’s Jird (Meriones crassus), the Libyan Jird (Meriones libycus), and Shaw’s Jird (Meriones shawi). Shaw’s Jird is large, even tempered and makes a good pet, and when fanciers use the term jird they are often referring to this species. Therefore, the term “gerbil” most commonly refers to the Mongolian Gerbil, and the term “jird” most commonly refers to Shaw’s Jird. Confused? There’s more:

There are two other species of gerbil which do not belong to the genus Meriones, but that are also referred to as jirds. These are the Bushy Tailed Jird (Sekeetamys calurus), and the Fat Tailed Jird (Pachyuromys duprasis). However, these are more commonly referred to as the “bushy tail” and the “duprasi” respectively. There are many other species of gerbil, some of which are less commonly kept as pets, but they are too numerous to cover here.

Gerbil fans say that gerbils make good pets due to their temperament, and ease of care. They tend to be easily tamed and are not as skittish as some other small rodents.

They also aren’t as inclined to bite unless threatened (as always there are exceptions). Coming from a dry natural habitat they are designed to conserve water, so produce scant urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they are quite territorial.