Like hamsters, gerbils have become popular pets to keep as they’re small, inexpensive, and easy to care for. There are still some places in the world where certain gerbil species live in the wild, but most of the world’s gerbil population are captive. The most common species for pet gerbils are Mongolian gerbils. While their small size and easy care routine may seem ideal for families, this is not true. Young children can be a danger to these delicate animals and a bad interaction may end in injury to either the gerbil or the child.
Attitude and Behavior
Unlike their counterparts, hamsters or mice, gerbils are not nocturnal. However, they can still be active at night. Much like dogs and cats, their sleep is divided evenly throughout the day and night in short naps.
They are very curious little animals. This can be fun to watch and experiment with. Giving them different objects to explore and watching how they use them can be entertaining for the whole family to watch. You should also be careful to never leave anything potentially harmful within their reach as they may become curious and injure themselves.
In the wild, gerbils live in groups. This means that it is not ideal to keep one gerbil at a time. Typically, same-sex pairs are best, and litter-mates are the best way to find a good match. If you already have an older gerbil, introducing a new one can be difficult since gerbils can be territorial.
Gerbils can be very docile especially when they are handled properly on a regular basis. They typically do not bite unless they are presented with a threat. This is why it is important to teach anyone who attempts to handle your gerbil exactly how they should do so. It is also why young children should not be allowed to handle the gerbil unless they are under the close supervision of an experienced adult.
Once you have brought your gerbil home, you should give him a few days to adjust before attempting to handle him. Do not abruptly pick up your gerbil. Give them time to be comfortable with you.
Start by offering your gerbil a few treats through the bars on their cage. Once they have accepted those treats without hesitation, open the cage door and offer treats that way. After your gerbil has accepted a few treats directly from your hand through the open cage door, place a treat in your palm and wait for your gerbil to sit on your hand. Once he seems comfortable sitting in your hand to eat treats, start placing treats on your arm.
After you have established trust with your gerbil you can carry him in cupped hands. Never squeeze your gerbil or pick him up by the tail. In fact, you should avoid touching their tail. Most gerbils enjoy light scratching on the sides and back of their head.
A pair of gerbils should be provided with a cage at least 12 inches by 24 inches by 12 inches tall. If you have the room for a larger cage, your gerbils will certainly appreciate it. You can alternatively use a glass aquarium rather than a wire cage. An aquarium can have a deeper layer of bedding than a wire cage without creating a mess. Gerbils are natural burrowers so having enough bedding to allow them to bury themselves is ideal. Like any rodent, you should have a sturdy mesh lid for ventilation and security.
If you are using a wire cage, be aware that gerbils often kick their bedding out wire cages. It may be smart to place a few towels or another layer of protection beneath the cage for easy cleaning. Bar spacing should be less than ½ inch to prevent escapes. Watch for little legs getting stuck.
Avoid using wire cages if you are limited to a smaller cage size. Gerbils tend to chew when they feel stressed, which can be caused by a small cage. Chewing on wire can cause injuries to your gerbil’s teeth or sores on his nose. Never use a plastic cage as they are not durable enough to withstand your gerbil’s chewing and they do not provide proper ventilation.
Accessories and Toys
Gerbils should also be provided with a “nest box”. This is a box made of wood or ceramic that will be used for hiding and sleeping. You can find small clay flower pots that will work for this purpose as well, just turn it on its side and scoop a small amount of bedding into it. You should not use plastic as it will likely be destroyed quickly due to your gerbil’s chewing. Wooden boxes will be chewed, but they will last longer and wood is safer for your gerbil to chew.
Some other accessories that you should consider adding to your cage are materials for climbing, toys, and an exercise wheel. Climbing materials could be a thick piece of wood, large rocks, ladder, or ramps and platforms. Make sure that all toys that are provided are safe for chewing. Toilet paper tubes, although quickly destroyed, are a popular toy.
There are many different materials that you can use for bedding. Paper beddings are the most popular. Some wood shavings are safe, such as aspen, while others like cedar and pine should be avoided. Consider using a material that can used for both bedding and shredding. Unbleached paper towels are a good choice for this. Rip the paper towels into large pieces and place them in the bottom of your cage, making a base of about 2-3 inches.
Make sure that any bedding that your gerbil may chew on is chemical, dye, and fragrance-free. Some nesting materials sold in pet stores do not follow these guidelines and can cause illness if your gerbil ingests too much. Store-bought nesting material can also be too thin and stringy and cause gerbil feet to get wrapped up. This is why is it always best to make your own bedding.
Any pet store should carry specially formulated gerbil food. This is usually a loose seed and rodent block mixture. Make sure to read the label carefully to ensure that it is intended for gerbils and not other rodents. The ingredients should consist of at least 10.5% protein and 4% fat.
As for treats, you can offer your gerbil sunflower seeds, Cheerios, and Rice Krispies. Avoid giving your gerbil any other human food. Fruits, vegetables, and meat can cause your gerbil to become very sick.
Feed your gerbil using a weighted ceramic bowl since they are harder to tip over and will help to prevent messes. Gerbils do not do well with water bowls. Instead, provide a water bottle with a metal spout hung on the side of the cage. Refill the water with non-chlorinated water often.
Gerbils are intelligent and playful animals that are very entertaining for owners of all ages. They can be taught games and tricks! They take up very little space and the cost of ownership is pretty low. Gerbils are great pets and a great gateway into rodent ownership if you are considering adopting more rodents in the future.