How to share your home with a gerbil (or two!)

Gerbils are often overlooked as pets in favor of the more fluffy and cuddly hamster, but they can be excellent and friendly companions. I got a call this week from someone interested in adopting a gerbil.

“It’s really cute, but I don’t know anything about how to take care of it,” she said. “What can you tell me?”

Thus began my research into gerbils and how their care requirements differ from other rodents like hamsters, rats and mice.

Mongolian gerbils are the most common kind kept as pets, and unlike most kinds of gerbils, they are not nocturnal. That doesn’t mean that they won’t sleep during the day, but that they’ll be up for a game or a little run time during daylight hours.

Gerbils have a very good sense of smell and can hear well, but have very poor eyesight. That’s why they tend to bite when they are woken; they can’t see what is prodding them and get defensive. Gerbils should be woken gently and tempted with a treat so they understand there’s no danger. Because of this poor vision, gerbils should be exercised on floors so they don’t walk off furniture or tables by accident. Children playing with gerbils should always be supervised by an adult to prevent harm to either party.

As top-notch escape artists, gerbils need very secure housing. Commercial housing is generally best for this. Avoid aquariums or completely enclosed plastic boxes, where ammonia and other odors can build up. Instead, look for a wire or plastic cage with plenty of ventilation. The floor should be solid or have relatively small holes so that gerbil feet cannot get caught.

In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with Carefresh or another paper-based litter for small animals. Cedar and pine shavings as bedding is not recommended because both woods contain oils that can be harmful to rodents – kiln-dried pine shavings are the exception. Most gerbils will use one corner of their living area as a bathroom and that area can be cleaned daily or every other day. Depending on your gerbil – in general, females tend to be better housekeepers than males – the entire cage should be cleaned weekly or every other week.

Cage furnishings should include a solid exercise wheel, with no slats or openings where feet or tail can get caught, and a box or nest for sleeping. A water bottle works better for a gerbil than a crock, which can get dirty quickly. And don’t forget a small food dish and some toys, like chew sticks, apple branches, toilet tissue rolls or small cardboard boxes that keep your gerbil interested and keep its teeth worn down.

A healthy gerbil will tend to live longer than rats, mice or hamsters, but just barely. Life span is 3 to 5 years with the majority living around 4 years. You can increase the odds of having a long-lived gerbil by feeding it a nutritious lab block diet made for rodents and supplementing that with some fresh vegetables and fruits every two or three days. Keep these fresh bits to relevant sizes – a piece of apple the size of your thumbnail is like a whole pizza to a gerbil! Too many green foods can lead to diarrhea, so cut back if you see loose stools. Seeds and nuts can also be fed in moderation, but should not be part of the main food mix or should be picked out and given only as treats, as they are high in fats and can lead to obesity. Don’t let fresh foods sit around for too long or they can spoil and be unsafe for your gerbil to consume.

Gerbils tend to be social animals, and it is best to have two of the same gender living together. This works well if you get two young gerbils that are littermates or have been introduced at a young age. However, it can be very difficult to determine gender on baby gerbils. At about six weeks you should be able to tell a difference. Make sure that you have two of the same, or make a vet appointment to check this out. One pair of breeding gerbils can have 10 litters a year with one to eight babies per litter, which can be overwhelming for the family that just wanted a couple of nice pets.

Let your new gerbils spend time warming up to you and your routine. They can be bribed with sunflower seeds to come out of their sleeping boxes and make friends. Put the seeds in the palm of your hand, move slowly and talk softly to gerbils as they get to know you. At this stage, it is usually best if an adult does the hand taming with the new pets.

To pick up a gerbil, cup your hands around its body and lift it up with both hands. Never pick up a gerbil by its tail, as the tail can break off with rough handling.

One of the best online sources for more information is the American Gerbil Society’s site at www.agsgerbils.org. This site goes into more detail on health issues you may have with gerbils, as well as how to interpret gerbil behavior like digging, grooming and thumping.