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Gerbils as Pets

General information

Gerbils Gerbils are small desert rodents. Because of this, they are specially adapted to the desert lifestyle. They consume small volumes of water and only produce scant, very concentrated volumes of urine. Interestingly, unlike rats and mice, their tails are covered in hair. Their ability to hear and smell is thought to be better than most other rodents. They can communicate with species alike via a series of foot drummings. In addition to this, they each have their own distinct scent produced by their ventral abdominal scent gland. This acts much in the same way as a dog urinating on trees and lamp posts. It allows them to make territorial boundaries.

Gerbils make great pets for both adults and children. They usually live longer than hamsters. They are odourless to humans, so their cages don’t need cleaning out as often. They rarely bite, unless they feel threatened or scared. They are fast moving creatures, so it might take a while to get used to handling them.

Feeding

Gerbils can be fed on a premixed gerbil diet which can be bought from most pet stores. This can be supplemented with sunflower seeds, raisins and melon seeds, It’s important not to overfeed your gerbil with these treats as it can lead to obesity and poor dental health.

Gerbils feed over a 24-hour period, so it’s important they always have food available to them. Gerbils are also coprophagic, meaning they eat their own faeces/ droppings. They do this to absorb as much nutrition from their diet as possible. This is another important adaptation as a desert animal.

Supply your gerbil with fresh water either in a water bowl (one smaller than the size of their body) or a water bottle.

Husbandry

Gerbils are very social creatures so ideally live in pairs or colonies. They should be kept in single sex groups to keep fighting to a minimum. The timing at which you introduce the gerbils to each other is crucial. Introduce them before they reach sexual maturity (ideally at 6-8 weeks of age). Unlike mice, a pair of adult females is more likely to fight than adult males.

Ideally, gerbils should be housed in a ‘gerbilarium’ which is a large glass or plastic tank with its top covered by a material allowing for adequate ventilation (mesh work, mental bars etc).

It’s important they have the opportunity in their home to carry out a ‘normal lifestyle’. Similar to mice, gerbils like to burrow. Their housing substrate (e.g. ripped up newspaper or sawdust) should be deep enough to allow for this (i.e. 15cm). When using an absorbable substrate like sawdust, this needs refreshing every 5-6 weeks to prevent the buildup of ammonia (from their urine) in their environment, which will predispose them to respiratory infections. Sand baths are a great idea both for entertainment and coat health. Wood and cardboard should be provided to alleviate boredom and act as a source of fun.

Handling

Gerbils are fast moving creatures, thus it might take a while to get used to handling them. It’s important to be aware that you should NOT pick up a gerbil by the base of its tail as you can for mice and rats. Their skin in this area is particularly fragile and can easily strip away if miss handled. Instead, with one hand use their scruff at the back of their neck to pick them up, and with the other hand support their body. Or, hold their body with one hand, with your thumb securely (but not too tight) under their chin, and the rest of your hand supporting the rest of their body. Gerbils rarely bite, unless they are frightened or feel threatened.

Common conditions

Gerbils are usually very resilient creatures, and rarely become ill. So in such a case, their illness is usually related to their environment, diet or how they are handled. Common conditions include:

  • gastrointestinal disease (diarrhoea, gastric dilation and ileus- most commonly Tyzzer’s disease)
  • respiratory disease (pneumonia and sinusitis)
  • urogenital disease (renal failure)
  • neurological disease (head tilt and epilepsy)
  • skin disease (parasitic, bacterial and ‘tail slip’)
  • tumours (usually in gerbils over 2 years of age, common sites affected include the kidneys, skin, reproductive tract and adrenal glands)

Fun facts

Gerbils usually sleep on top of each other and can unconsciously groom each other when they are half asleep. Baby gerbils are born with no fur, blind and deaf.

 

For further information on your pet gerbil, or if you’re concerned about them having any of the conditions/ symptoms mentioned above, come in and see us at your nearest Pets‘n’Vets surgery.

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