There are, in fact, over a hundred species of gerbils. But by far the most common species to be kept as a pet is the Mongolian gerbil. Gerbils are omnivorous - meaning they naturally eat a mixture of meat and plant matter. They are generally diurnal or crepuscular which means they are active at dawn and dusk and intermittantly during the day. They are a relatively new pet species, first being kept as pets in the 1960s. They have since been selectively bred to produce a wide variety of coat colours. Gerbils are a little more long lived than other small pet rodents and can live up to four years.
Housing your gerbil
There are three basic types of gerbil habitat. A cage, a tank or a modular cage such as a rotastak.
Rotastak style cages are not generally recommended as suitable housing for gerbils. They have poor ventilation and do not provide the gerbil with enough open space to run around or burrow in. Gerbils will also chew the plastic, which makes the cage insecure and potentially dangerous.
Tanks make great homes for gerbils as long as they have plenty of ventilation and are kept in cool spots. The tank should be laid out well to make best use of all the available space. Some plastic tanks are suitable, as long as they do not have ridges inside which allow the gerbil to chew a hole. Use caution when housing a gerbil in a plastic home, watching carefully for signs of damage.
Traditional cages provide good ventilation and opportunities for the gerbil to climb and interact with you. But the base may not be deep enough to allow for burrowing and some gerbils might chew either the bars or the plastic base.
Perhaps the best solution is a “gerbilarium” style home where a cage is put on top of a tank. This provides the opportunity for digging in deep litter that gerbils enjoy but also means you can interact with them more easily. The cage should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts.
There are many varying opinions about the amount of space gerbils require. The American Gerbil Society recommends a 10 gallon tank for a pair of gerbils (around 1.5 cubic feet) whereas the RSPCA recommends a tank of 4.5 cubic feet. We would suggest that 2 cubic feet should be the absolute minimum for a single gerbil with at least 1 cubic foot added for each additional gerbil.
Your gerbil will appreciate cage furnishings such as tubes, safe branches, wheels (solid, not barred) and houses. Use caution when providing any plastic toys and furnishings as gerbils may chew them and ingest the plastic, which may cause a blockage in their intestines. Toilet and kitchen roll innards make ideal enrichment for your gerbils. Gerbils also appreciate the opportunity to bath in chinchilla sand but just put the bath in for short periods otherwise you will probably find they use it as a toilet! Your gerbil should be given a solid house (a thick cardboard box will do nicely) which is dark - burying it in the substrate and providing a tube to access it by is ideal. Studies have shown that a dark burrow in which to sleep reduces sterotypical behaviours in captive gerbils.
Substrate and bedding
Substrate is very important to gerbils. They are burrowing animals in the wild so it is absolutely vital that they are given the opportunity to indulge this natural behaviour in captivity. We recommend that the layer of substrate in your gerbil's home should be about as high as your gerbil when he is stood on his hind legs.
It is also important to use the right type of substrate as the wrong material can have serious health implications. As a basic guide, paper and cardboard-based products are good (eg shredded paper, megazorb, finacard). Never use clay based litters, scented products or any product containing soft wood (eg wood based cat litters, sawdust and wood shavings). There is considerable evidence to suggest that these can cause liver and lung damage in small animals. Adding some meadow hay to the bedding helps your gerbil to build tunnels and nests.
How often this bedding needs changing depends largely on the number of gerbils you have and how much space they have. Gerbils create less waste than other rodents so, in a good sized home, a full clean once a fortnight should suffice, with a tidy up once in between full cleans.
Feed your gerbil with a good quality commercial gerbil food. Avoid those which state they are for 'hamsters and gerbils' - the two species have different dietary needs and hamster mixes may be too high in fat. The mix can be supplemented with sugar free cereals, dried pasta, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and peanuts in moderation.
In addition to dried food, your gerbils will enjoy fresh foods. These should be introduced slowly and in moderation as too much can cause diarrhoea. Good things to give them include cucumber, peas, banana, apple, broccoli, carrot and mealworms. Although leafy greens like spinach and lettuce are not harmful in themselves, they are more likely to cause diarrhoea so should be given only in very small amounts. Avoid giving them too much salt or sugar or foods too high in fat. Never give your gerbil chocolate, onion, garlic, potato or kidney beans.
Water should be provided in a bottle (not a bowl which will soon get messy) and should be changed daily.
Gerbils are sociable animals who should be kept in at least pairs if at all possible. Female gerbils do best in pairs (larger groups can be more prone to fighting) and males can be kept in groups of 3 or 4. However, gerbils are fiercely territorial so do not attempt to introduce your gerbil to another without advice.
Sexing your gerbil
Sexing gerbils is quite straightforward. Like all pet rodents, the females have visible genitals/urinary openings which can be confused with a penis. The important thing to look for is the size of the gap between this and the anus. In females, the two openings are very close together with no furred skin between the two. In males you will see a noticeable gap including some fur. In mature males, there are also visible testicles.
If you are not confident in sexing gerbils, be sure to acquire your gerbils from someone who is. Pet shops often mis-sex rodents and they can breed quickly and prolifically. There are many gerbils looking for homes in rescue centres so please do all you can not to add to the over population problem. If you find you have gerbils of both genders, please seek help from a specialist rodent rescue urgently. Bear in mind that pet shops, vets and rescues which do not specialise in rodents may not be able to determine the gender of rodents reliably.
Interacting with your gerbil
You may find that your gerbils are initially shy of being handled. This is natural and normal and all you need is gentle persistence and understanding to help them to get used to you. Begin by making friends with your gerbils while their feet are on the ground by offering them treats and talking softly to them. You can initially encourage them to walk into a tube and then from the tube on to your hand or lap if they are nervous about being picked up. Once they are out you can get them used to being handled by scooping them with both hands rather than “grabbing” them. Always handle your gerbil sitting down, ideally on a bed or sofa so the gerbil has a soft landing if he jumps! Never pick your gerbil up by his tail.
It’s important that gerbils get exercise and mental stimulation or they can display sterotypical frustrated behaviour (bar chewing, repetitive digging and aggression for example). Ideally your gerbil should be handled and given the chance to explore outisde of his cage every day. This should be in a safe, secure area where things which may harm him such as heavy objects he might knock over, other pets, electrical wires, potential toxins and sharp objects are removed. Gerbils can find large open spaces intimidating so, at least initially, you might find it best to free range him in a smaller area. Sitting on the bed or sofa with them is ideal. Bear in mind that gerbils can get into tiny gaps and will seek to do so if scared. So be sure to check for gaps under furniture for example before letting them loose.
Your gerbil should be handled daily and as part of this you should perform a health check. Check eyes and nose for any discharge, check for lumps, check the skin for any wounds or flakiness and check the bottom for any signs of diarrhoea. Loss of co-ordination, weight loss and increased thirst are also possible signs of illness. Gerbils have very fast metabolic rates so can succumb to illness quickly. It is therefore essential that you see your vet promptly with any concerns. Gerbils can be particularly prone to dental problems, seizures, tumours, tail sloughing and Tyzzer's disease which causes lethargy, hunched posture, loss of appetite and diarrhoea.
This information is intended as a basic guide to caring for this type of animal. If you intend to get some gerbils please ensure you research their needs thoroughly and that you can offer them everything they need for the duration of their lifespan. If you have any questions which are not covered here you are very welcome to