Caring for your pet gerbil
Gerbils are fascinating pets and will fit in well with most families. They are inquisitive, friendly and are found in many colours.
There are about 90 species of gerbil, but the Mongolian gerbil is the one kept as a pet. They are sometimes mistaken for mice or rats, but they look and behave differently. Gerbils have long, hairy tails and are serious diggers!
Do gerbils make good pets?
They are active, sociable and intelligent and are very interesting to watch when provided with the right environment. For older children, gerbils can make rewarding pets but it’s important that an adult is responsible for overseeing their care and wellbeing.
Gerbils do not enjoy being picked up and handled as they prefer to have their feet firmly on the ground. They're naturally quick and agile, so younger children can also find it difficult to hold them without squeezing too hard.
If you have young children, read our advice on finding the right small pet for you.
How long do pet gerbils live?
Gerbils generally live for up to three to four years, although they may live longer.
Do gerbils need company?
Gerbils are very sociable and should not be kept alone. They naturally live in a group, so it’s not fair to keep one on their own.
If you buy two or more baby gerbils of the same sex – from the same litter or harmonious group – they should get on well. But adult gerbils (ie over 10 weeks old) can be aggressive towards any newcomers to the group. Find out what to do if you're introducing gerbils and what to do if they fight.
Are gerbils nocturnal?
Gerbils are generally diurnal which means they are mostly active during the day but can also be active in the evening and at night. So you may not want to keep their tank in the bedroom as they might disturb you while you're sleeping.
Where to get gerbils
Rehoming centres like ours take in rescue gerbils for lots of reasons, like a change in the owners circumstances or if they're not getting the care they need. Before you buy a gerbil, make sure you do your research and consider adopting one instead.
Breeders and pet shops
Another option is to buy one from a responsible pet shop or breeder. Here are some things to bear in mind:
- Make sure the breeder or shop staff know how to care for them and can handle the gerbils confidently
- They should have clean, good-sized accommodation and access to food and fresh water
- Cages should have plenty of enrichment (or activities) for the gerbil and deep bedding for them to burrow in
- Gerbils should not be sold until they are at least six weeks old
- The breeder or pet shop staff should be able to show you the difference between the sexes. If they are not confident, it's best to walk away as you cannot be sure that your gerbil isn't pregnant.
Caring for your gerbils
What do I need to buy for my gerbils?
- A suitable gerbilarium or tank with lots of space allowing them to dig
- Suitable food
- Earthenware or stainless steel bowls for food
- Water bottle
- Lots of tunnels eg toilet rolls
- A nest box
- A dust bath
- Something to chew on
- Plastic-free toys to keep them entertained
- A carry case for trips to the vet
As well as the above, your gerbils need a constant supply of fresh water. You may also want to consider getting pet insurance.
Gerbilariums and tanks for gerbils
In the wild, gerbils live in underground tunnels up to three metres long. The best way to mimic their natural habitat and keep them happy is to buy a gerbilarium or tank with cage additions.
You can also house them in a large tank or old aquarium with a secure wire lid that lets oxygen in. They'll also need plenty of material for them to dig and tunnel into. Cages made entirely of wire sides are not suitable because they need deep bedding to burrow in.
Two to four gerbils need a minimum floor surface of 100cm long, by 40cm wide, by 40cm tall to allow them plenty of space to explore, dig, build tunnels and hop about.
A hamster cage is not a suitable home for gerbils.
Should pet gerbils live inside or outside?
Pet gerbils should be kept inside. They're sensitive to changes in temperature, so you should keep their tank or gerbilarium away from draughts and direct sunlight or heat.
Gerbils will also appreciate a quieter spot in your home. They communicate using ultrasonic frequencies. This means they can be sensitive to ultrasound eg TVs, running water or vacuum cleaners. So it's best to house them away from any of these to reduce their stress levels.
As these little animals can be active at night, you may not want to keep their tank in a bedroom. You are not likely to disturb them, but they may disturb you!
How often do I need to clean my gerbil's tank?
You should fully clean your gerbilarium every two or three weeks, depending on how many gerbils you have and how quickly it gets dirty. Because gerbils originate from desert and dry grassland areas, they do not produce much urine and waste, so it’s fairly easy to keep their environment clean and free from smells.
Make sure you also spot clean every few days by removing soiled bedding and uneaten rotten food regularly – this will help keep the cage clean and keep your gerbil happy!
How to clean my gerbil's cage
- Wait until your gerbil is awake
- Remove them from their tank and place them in a pet carrier or an safe, enclosed area with some toys and bedding
- Take out any toys or tunnels and clean them if necessary
- Scoop out their burrowing material and bedding using a dustpan and brush
- Using a pet-safe disinfectant, which you can buy in a pet shop, spray the cage
- Then wipe it all down and wash thoroughly with warm water
- Leave to air until dry
- Clean their food bowls and their water bottle, using warm water and a bottle brush
You're now ready to set it back up.
- Add in new bedding
- Place their tunnels and toys in – you can vary their toys or move them around to keep things interesting!
- Add fresh water and food
It’s important to keep the cage clean, but as gerbils rely on familiar smells to feel safe, make sure you put back some of the unsoiled used bedding when you do a ‘full’ clean (about a third of the bedding is ideal). This will reduce potential stress.
Burrowing underground is where gerbils are happiest and they'll need lots of bedding to dig around in.
- A thick layer of dust extracted bedding such as Aubiose or Megazorb
- Add several pieces of cardboard – this will provide structure to their burrows and the gerbils can shred it to the size they need during construction time!
- Provide some meadow or Timothy hay – they may use this when building their tunnels or nest, and they can nibble on it which is good for their teeth
- They'll also need shredded paper bedding for nesting
Avoid fluffy material bedding as this can wrap around gerbils’ legs and cause stomach problems if eaten.
Boxes and tunnels
Gerbils love to create tunnels underground. But you can also layer cardboard tunnels, like toilet rolls, on top of their bedding as well as under the surface.
Gerbils should be given somewhere to sleep, like a nest box. We don't advise plastic as they can shred and ingest this. They have strong teeth and will chew through it.
Ceramic or clay flowerpots make a good sleeping area, but if there is a hole at the end, make sure it's large enough that your gerbils will not get stuck. Or you can give them a cardboard box with holes that they can enter and exit through.
They like to sleep together so, unlike other rodents, they only require one nesting area. They may choose to sleep in tunnels given to them or made by them. This means they'll stay bonded and will not become territorial of other nest options.
A dust bath of chinchilla sand (available from most pet shops) should be provided so your gerbil can keep their coat clean and in good condition. Some gerbils will toilet in their dust bath, so make sure you remove it and replace when they do.
Enrichment and exercise for gerbils
Gerbils love to dig and burrow, so make sure they have enough bedding to do this to their heart's content.
Toys they'll love include:
- cardboard tubes and boxes to chew on, run through and hide away in
- wooden based toys such as bendy bridges, gnaw sticks, tunnels and logs which they will climb on top of, hide under and chew
- hanging toys such as coconut shells filled with hay will encourage natural foraging behaviour
- fruit tree branches to climb on or chew. If sticks or branches get sharp from your gerbils chewing them, remove and replace them with new ones.
- a flat rock – this might be used as a lookout point and it will also help wear down their nails
Gerbils will sometimes use exercise wheels, but make sure it is a solid wheel with no bars, otherwise their tails will get trapped and injured.
Because they're such good chewers, plastic toys can be dangerous, so they're best avoided.
What do gerbils eat?
Most gerbil owners like to feed gerbil specific nuggets as the basis of their pets’ diet, but they should also be given fresh vegetables and fruit. They'll also enjoy meal worms occasionally.
Ensure your gerbils have a constant supply of fresh water. This should be provided in a free-access water bottle fixed inside the tank because water bowls will be tipped over and buried.
Gerbils can chew plastic, so check their water bottle daily to make sure it's working and has not been damaged.
Fresh fruit and veg
Good examples of fruit and veg to give your gerbils include:
Gerbils, like many pets, do not need many treats and you should avoid feeding them foods high in sugar and fat.
Foods to avoid or only give in small amounts
Lettuce can be given occasionally, but only in very small amounts. Avoid giving them potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves as these are poisonous.
Don't worry if you see your gerbil eating poo - like all rodents, they do this because it keeps their guts nice and healthy and it's completely normal.
How much should I feed my gerbils?
Like many pets, gerbils can become overweight if they're fed too much and are not getting enough exercise. It can be tricky to spot, so it's good to check the feeding instructions on your pet food.
If you're concerned your pet is putting on weight or not eating enough, it's best to speak to your vet.
How to feed my gerbil
You can hide their food around their gerbilarium or tank (called scatter feeding) to reproduce their natural environment. But, earthenware or stainless steel feed bowls can also be used.
Don’t worry about them burying their feed bowl under their bedding, as it’s natural for them to store and hoard food. Just make sure you remove any uneaten rotten food every day.
Removing all their hoarded food can be stressful for gerbils. If a hoard has to be completely removed, replace with a similar amount of food with a little of the old unspoiled food mixed in.
How to keep gerbils healthy
A healthy gerbil has bright eyes, a glossy coat and is alert and lively – except in the daytime when they're sleepy. A runny or sticky nose or eyes, dull coat or lethargy are signs of ill health and you should seek veterinary advice.
Like other rodents, gerbils have upper incisor teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives.
They keep them at the right length by gnawing on things, so provide wooden chew toys available from pet shops or a small branch from a fruit tree, such as apple (check it has not been sprayed with pesticides).
Gerbils foot stomp when they are startled or threatened. This might happen when they're startled by a person or a noise. They will communicate this to their companions, who may also join in.
Although this is very normal behaviour, if it happens regularly you might want to consider moving them to a quieter area of your home. Gerbils will also foot stomp as a ‘mating call’.
How to prevent unwanted litters
If you're buying a pair of gerbils, make sure that the breeder or staff in the pet shop are able to show you how to tell the difference between males and females. If staff are not sure, you may end up with a pregnant gerbil and you will quickly become overrun.
Females can become pregnant within 24 hours of giving birth, so if you find yourself in a situation where you have an unplanned pregnancy and litter, make sure you separate the male straight away.
It's important that you keep gerbils together. Ideally, buy two or more baby gerbils of the same sex, from the same litter or harmonious group.
Adult gerbils (ie over ten weeks old) can be aggressive towards any newcomers. Females are often more aggressive than males, so pairings work best with a neutered male and a female, but you can bond the same sex with slow introductions.
It’s best not to introduce a lone gerbil into an established group, as this can affect the dynamic of the existing group – two lone gerbils are generally easier to introduce.
If you have to introduce an older gerbil, here's how to do it:
- Split the tank with a wire frame so they can see and smell but not injure each other
- Don't add lots of deep bedding or toys to the tank, as this may increase territorial behaviour. Add some pieces of cardboard so they can still chew and make a nest area.
- The gerbils should be swapped from side to side daily, so they both get used to each other's scent
- After about a week or two, if they are showing positive signs such as sitting next to each other or trying to groom each other through the barrier, then it's time to remove the barrier
- Watch how they interact together
- Make sure interactions are short at first and slowly build them up over time. If all signs are positive, the gerbils can remain together from this point, but if you are unsure you can do shorter 'sessions' and build them up over time until you feel confident they are getting along really well.
- Keep an eye on them to make sure they do not fight and injure one another
- If they fight following this, put the divider back again and continue to swap the gerbils over regularly, making sure they both have access to food and water
- Don't clean your gerbils out during the introduction process. Wait until they've been together for three days and are snuggling up to sleep (this is a great sign!), then you can clean them out.
As gerbils are naturally sociable, they should become more familiar with each other – some will bond very quickly, and others might take a bit more time to settle.
What to do if your gerbils are fighting
Here are some tips that might help with aggression in gerbils.
Give them enough food and water so they do not have to share resources (eg separate food bowls)
Do not provide more than one nest box. Gerbils like to sleep together, and this also reinforces their social bond. If they have too many nest opportunities, they may then choose to sleep apart and this may increase the chances of one or both becoming territorial over the space. It’s often better to have only one nest box in their enclosure.
Check the size of their cage. Even the most bonded gerbils may fall out if they do not have enough room. It’s very important that gerbils can carry out their natural behaviours, otherwise they will become frustrated.
Get them checked by your vet. If one gerbil becomes unwell or is in pain, this may start to affect their behaviour towards their cage mates.
Gerbils have a very sensitive smell. If there is a sudden change in their scent, for example, if one gerbil becomes ill, their scent may alter so much that the other gerbil fails to recognise them as part of their social group.
Handling your gerbils
Gerbils are usually friendly and happy to interact with people, but they do not really enjoy being picked up. It’s important to health check your gerbils regularly so it’s a good idea to get them used to being handled for this purpose.
How to handle your gerbils
- Start by placing your hand in the tank so the gerbils can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them
- Pick up a gerbil by placing your hand around their body, just behind the front legs, and support the back legs in your other hand
- Always hold them close to a surface such as a table, your lap or their cage, as gerbils are extremely good jumpers and can easily jump out of hands and injure themselves if they have a long way to fall
Never handle a gerbil by the end of their tail as it's extremely fragile and can easily be injured. Children should only handle gerbils under adult supervision in case they accidentally squeeze too hard.