Caring for your gerbil
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Gerbils are fascinating pets and will fit in well with most families. They are inquisitive, rarely bite and are found in many colours.
There are about 90 species, 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 they make good pets?
Gerbils make great pets. They are active, sociable and intelligent, but they’re best suited to children and adults who do not want to hold their pets. For older children, gerbils can make entertaining pets but it’s important that an adult is responsible for overseeing their care and wellbeing.
Gerbils are naturally quick and agile so younger children can find it difficult to hold them without squeezing too hard. They also do not enjoy being picked up and handled.
If you have young children, you should consider a different species. Read our information for help and support on finding the right small pet for you.
Are gerbils nocturnal?
Although gerbils can occasionally be active during the day, they mainly come out at night. You may not want to keep their tank in the bedroom as they might disturb you during the night.
How long do gerbils live?
Gerbils generally live for up to three to four years, although they may live longer.
What do gerbils need?
Gerbils are very sociable and should not be kept alone. However, they breed from three months old and can produce a litter of four to ten babies every 24 days, so it’s important to keep pairs or small groups of the same sex.
- A suitable gerbilarium or tank – this is different to a hamster cage – with lots of tunnels to explore and some bedding
- Access to regular food
- A constant supply of water
- Something to chew on such as a gerbil toy
- Company with other gerbils of the same sex – see below for more information on how to introduce gerbils safely
- Fun activities to do
Gerbil cages and tanks
Two gerbils need a minimum floor surface of 70cm long, by 35cm wide, by 50cm tall because they are great jumpers.
In the wild, gerbils live in underground tunnels up to 3m 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 and plenty of material for them to dig and tunnel into. Wire cages are not suitable because the bedding will be kicked out.
Gerbils need a thick layer of dust- extracted bedding to dig into. Organic soil or peat are great natural beddings for your gerbil along with meadow or Timothy hay, plus shredded paper for nesting. Don’t use fluffy material as this can wrap around gerbils’ limbs and injure them.
Gerbils also like a nest box – but not made of wood or plastic, which they’ll chew. A clay flowerpot cut in half makes a good sleeping area. A dust bath of chinchilla sand (available from most pet shops) should be provided so the gerbil can keep its coat clean and in good condition.
Where to put your gerbil tank
You should keep the tank or aquarium 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.
As these little animals are active during the evening – and occasionally during the day – you may not want to keep their tank in a bedroom. You are not likely to disturb them, but they may disturb you!
Cleaning your gerbil tank
You should clean your gerbilarium every two to three weeks, or more often if 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.
You will need to replace all the burrowing material and wash the inside of the cage with a gerbil-friendly cleaner every few months.
What food do gerbils like?
Gerbils should eat commercial gerbil feed mixes as the basis of their diet but they should also be given fresh vegetables and fruit. Gerbils enjoy apples, carrots, broccoli, sprouts and cauliflower. Lettuce can be given occasionally but only in very small amounts. Don’t feed potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves as these are poisonous.
Earthenware or stainless steel feed bowls should 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.
Also 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.
Where to get a gerbil
Only buy gerbils from a knowledgeable breeder, one of our rehoming centres or a good pet shop where the assistants know how to care for them and can handle the gerbils confidently. They should be in clean accommodation of ample size, with food and fresh water available. Cages should also have beds and bedding.
Babies should not be sold until they are at least five to six weeks old.
Males become sexually mature at 70 to 80 days old and females at 86 to 109 days. Females can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth, so it’s important that males and females are kept separate in pet shops. The staff in the shop should be able to show you how to tell the difference between males and females. If staff aren’t sure, you may end up with a pregnant gerbil.
Keeping your gerbil healthy
A healthy gerbil has bright eyes, a glossy coat and is alert and lively – except in the daytime when sleepy. A runny or sticky nose or eyes, dull coat or lethargy are signs of ill health and you should need 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).
Exercising and entertaining your gerbil
Gerbils love to dig and burrow, so make sure they have enough bedding to do this to their hearts’ content. They have enormous fun with cardboard tubes, like toilet roll tubes, and will run through them and chew them. They also like fruit tree branches to climb on and, if you put a flat rock in the tank, they may use it as a lookout point.
Introducing gerbils to each other
Gerbils naturally live in a group, so it’s not fair to keep one on its 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. However, adult gerbils (ie over ten weeks old) can be aggressive towards any newcomers to the group.
Females are often more aggressive than males. If you have to introduce an older gerbil, split the tank with a wire frame so they can see and smell but not injure each other and swap sides so that the tank picks up the scent of both gerbils. After three or four days they should settle together without a barrier, but it’s important to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t fight and injure one another.
Handling your gerbil
Gerbils are usually friendly and happy to interact with people, but they don’t 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.
- 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 its body, just behind the forelegs, and support the hindquarters in your other hand.