Gerbil Care & FAQs
If you live in the Colorado Springs area you’ll hopefully consider Dublin Animal Hospital a valuable resource for veterinary care and getting answers to other concerns. You can call us at 719-593-1336.
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Before Getting a Gerbil
Is a Gerbil Right For You?
By: ASPCA Ani-Med
Could a clawed jird be the perfect pet for you? Nope, that isn’t a typo–the word “jird” translates as “large desert rodent,” and it’s another name for the Mongolian gerbil. If properly cared for, these curious and gentle critters can make wonderful animal companions.
In the wild, gerbils are brownish-reddish-gray in color, which helps them blend in with their desert environment. Pet gerbils are available in a variety of colors, including white, soft caramel and all-black. Unlike other members of the rodent family (we’re talking mice, rats and hamsters), gerbils have excellent vision. They measure in at about four inches, plus a tail of the same length, and have an average lifespan of 3 to 5 years.
If you’re thinking about getting a gerbil, you really should consider getting more than one. These social animals live in family communities in the wild, and their domestic counterparts will get lonely if kept by themselves. Please bring home at least a pair; opt for same-sex siblings if at all possible. As adult males tend to fight, ASPCA experts recommend two females for first-time gerbil parents. While most gerbils sold as pets are Mongolian gerbils, or Meriones unguiculatus, other species are sometimes available. However, please note that members of different species should NOT be kept together.
Do you have the time it takes to properly care for gerbils? These curious charmers aren’t the type of pets you can just feed, water and passively watch through the bars of a cage. Gerbils are easily hand-tamed and need supervised playtime out of the cage every day. Gentle by nature, gerbils seldom bite if properly handled–but if you don’t think you’d feel comfortable handling them, it’s best to consider another pet.
We also need to warn you that gerbils are MAJOR diggers! Many owners have been unpleasantly surprised to find their pets constantly digging and scratching at the bottom and sides of the cage. Luckily, there’s a very easy solution. Simply fulfill your gerbils’ inherent needs to dig by providing extra bedding on the cage floor and a small box filled with soil or bedding material.
Have these furry guys met your criteria so far? Gerbils may be right for you, but how about everyone else in the family? It’s especially great if everyone is involved in the decision-making and caretaking. Because they’re gentle, hardy, slow to bite and relatively easy to clean up after, gerbils are recommended as pets for older children who have mastered proper handling techniques. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are active during the day, which fits in well with many schedules. And because they produce minimal amounts of urine, gerbils tend to smell less than most other companion rodents. (That doesn’t mean you can skimp on your daily and weekly cage-cleaning duties, though!)
If you’re all set to bring gerbils home, we suggest getting yours from a reputable breeder or, best of all, adopting them from a shelter or small-animal rescue group. Search on sites like www.petfinder.com for gerbils looking for a second chance at a good life.
Bringing Your Gerbil Home
Learn where you can obtain animal emergency care before you need emergency care! Make sure to call ahead before you go for emergency care.
Emergency Transport: Do not try to approach or handle an injured animal in a hurried manner. Any injured animal may bite without warning! If you suspect serious injuries, gently slide your pet onto a board, blanket or makeshift stretcher for transport.
Burns: Most burns require a veterinarian’s attention. If a burn is mild, apply cold water or ice. Cover serious burns with fabric and take your pet to a veterinarian. Do not apply ointments or other home remedies.
Choking: Be careful to avoid being bitten. Hold your pet upside down. Apply pressure to the chest of a cat or just behind the ribs of a dog to attempt to dislodge the object. If pet is unconscious, attempt to remove any visible objects from the throat with a blunt instrument. If these methods fail, rush your pet to the veterinarian.
Fractures: Control any serious bleeding by applying pressure. Never use a tourniquet. Keep any wounds clean. Do not try to set the bone. Restrict your pet’s movements and go to your veterinarian.
Poisoning: Call your veterinarian. Be able to describe the signs your pet is showing and what Poseidon was contacted. Follow the doctor’s advice on whether or not to induce vomiting. Proceed to your veterinarian for continued care, if needed.
By: ASPCA Ani-Med
Welcome to the wonderful world of gerbils! Bet you can’t wait to get to know all about your pets–and once they settle in, these curious, social little guys will want to know all about you, too. You can begin to earn their trust and affection by getting them used to being handled.
Food treats are a great way to jump-start the getting-to-know-each-other process. Start by slowly putting your hand in the cage and offering small bits of their favorite treats. Don’t be surprised if your pets come over not only for a snack, but also for a good sniff of their new human friend. Bold individuals may even climb onto your hand or lick you. A little nibble or two is not uncommon, either. Try to hold still in any of these situations!
When your pets are comfortable accepting treats from you, it’s time to start handling them. Coax your gerbil onto your palm and gently put your other hand over him as you scoop him up. You can also flank your gerbil with both hands, cupping them together to securely lift him up. From here, gently stroke him, petting his head, ears and back. That wasn’t so tough, right? Conduct a few brief handling sessions twice daily for a couple of weeks. Each time, it should get a little easier and more enjoyable for all involved.
Once your gerbils have been hand-tamed, you’ll be able to let them exercise outside their cage every day. These play sessions can keep your pets physically fit and mentally stimulated. You will definitely need to supervise, however.
In return for your gerbils’ cooperation during handling, you must ensure that they are never picked up by someone who hasn’t mastered the proper technique. A gerbil should never be grabbed by the tail or by the scruff of the neck; such actions could easily injure the animal.
By: ASPCa Ani-Med
Ready to set up your new pets’ home? Your gerbils don’t require much in the way of decoration, but you will need to ensure that their cage is roomy and sturdy, with lots of bedding material so your little guys can dig to their hearts’ content. A well-made cage and accessories are the most important investments you’ll make for your pets.
A ten-gallon aquarium with a wire-mesh top makes a good home for a pair of gerbils. If you plan to keep more than two gerbils, purchase a tank that’s at least 15 gallons–and remember that it’s always nice to buy the largest cage you can afford. We know that many caretakers go for cages with bars, such as those made of wire, but keep in mind that your gerbils will kick out the bedding as they dig, which will lead to an extended clean-up time for you. Plastic habitats with connecting tubes are okay, but your gerbils will probably scratch the tubes and sides of the cage, making it harder to see them; some gerbils have even been known to chew their way through the tunnels. Whatever type of cage you choose, be sure to place it in an area of the house that’s away from direct sunlight and drafts.
Now it’s time to make your gerbils’ new house feel like a home. Line the cage with extra bedding so your pets can do what they do best–and that’s DIG! ASPCA experts recommend aspen shavings or a safe recycled paper bedding. Steer clear of cedar and pine shavings, as their fumes can irritate your pet’s throat, lungs and nasal passages. Be sure to add some timothy hay or shredded paper so your little guys can make a cozy nest. And all gerbils need a place for sleeping and resting. You can fulfill this requirement with a medium-size clay flowerpot, a large-mouth jar or other sturdy container. Don’t give ’em anything made of soft plastic or cardboard, which they’ll simply chew to bits.
Add a few toys and your pets will be set. Some gerbils enjoy running on an exercise wheel, so be sure yours have one made of solid plastic or metal. Gerbils love to tunnel, too, so provide your pets with cardboard tubes from paper towels and toilet paper. Larger, more sturdy tubes, such as those made of PVC, also will fit the bill. And don’t forget a smooth, clean stone or rock for your gerbils’ cage. This will serve as a lookout for your pets, who are quite curious by nature.
To be a good gerbil caretaker, you’ll need to remove soiled bedding, droppings and any uneaten food every day. Once a week, remove and replace the bedding and scrub the bottom of the cage with warm water and a detergent or liquid soap that’s safe for animals. Rinse well and be sure everything’s dry before restocking the bedding. Also, take care to put cage furniture and food dishes back in the same spot. Redecorating can easily stress your pets out.
By: ASPCA Ani-Med
Time to eat…again! Your little critters can work up quite an appetite with all that digging, chewing and running on the exercise wheel. As a responsible gerbil caretaker, it’s your job to meet your pets’ nutritional needs while providing as much variety as possible.
A commercial gerbil seed mix should make up the bulk of your pets’ diet. Nutritionally complete, it’s readily available at pet supply stores, and consists of seeds, grains, pellets and dried vegetables; look for a mix with a protein content of about 12 percent, and a fat content in the 6- to 8-percent range. Pelleted gerbil food will meet your pets’ needs, too, but it doesn’t offer them much variety. It’s a good idea to make sure that your gerbils have eaten everything in their bowl before refilling. This way, they won’t get into the bad habit of picking out the high-fat foods from the mix–typically, sunflower seeds–and leaving behind the higher protein foods they need to balance their diet.
Every day, you should supplement your pets’ diet with small amounts of fresh vegetables, such as carrots, leaf lettuces, turnips, cauliflower and cucumber. Offer your gerbils small amounts of sweet fruits like apples and bananas every other day, but take care to gradually introduce any fresh food. Too much, too soon can cause diarrhea. Be sure to wash all produce well, and remove any food that remains uneaten after a day. Never give your gerbils potatoes, onions, raw kidney beans, chocolate or sweets.
Although you may have heard that native desert animals like gerbils don’t need water, that is not at all true for gerbils kept as pets. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. We recommend an upside-down bottle with a sipper tube that attaches to the side of the cage. You’ll need to rinse and refill it every day.
The addition of vitamins to a gerbil’s diet is strictly a matter of personal preference. Some owners add liquid supplements to their pets’ water, while others sprinkle powdered vitamins on the food. Keep in mind, however, that no amount of vitamins can make up for an inadequate diet.
Taking Care of Your Gerbil
Common Health Problems
By: ASPCA An-Med
Preventive medicine is the key to keeping your gerbils healthy. That means providing a proper diet, maintaining a clean living environment and seeing that your pets get adequate exercise. If these needs are not met, however, your animal companions can become ill. Knowing what to look out for can help you to help your pet should a problem arise.
Did you know that many problems in gerbils can be attributed to an IMPROPER DIET? If you’ve never given your pets fresh foods before, for example, feeding too much, too soon can result in diarrhea. This unpleasant symptom can also occur if your little guys eat food that’s spoiled. It’s a smart idea to isolate the sick individual and keep him on dry foods only for a couple of days. Seek the advice of your veterinarian if it hasn’t cleared up by then.
Gerbils seem to be prone to RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS, particularly the common cold. Symptoms of the sniffles include sneezing, hacking, wheezing and drippy eyes and nose. Gerbils suffering from colds tend to shiver and huddle up, in an effort to stay warm. Keep the affected individual in a warmer area of the house, and if his symptoms aren’t getting better in a day or so, consult the vet.
PARASITES of various kinds have bugged many a gerbil. Mites, for example, can cause itchy lesions and loss of fur in affected animals. If your pet is constantly scratching and biting himself, fleas or lice may be the culprits. Animals suffering from an infestation, as well as the surrounding environment, should be treated.
An EYE INFECTION is one of the major occupational faced by gerbils. With all the digging and burrowing they do, it’s not uncommon for a particle of sand, dirt or bedding material to get trapped behind a gerbil’s nictitating membrane, or the third eyelid found at the inner corner of the eye. If you see your pet constantly scratching his eye, or notice any loss of fur around the eye, consult your veterinarian.
If you notice any unusual symptoms in your pet, do not wait until a regularly scheduled check-up to see your veterinarian. Signs of illness, in addition to those discussed above, include lethargy, dull or uneven coat, and a crouching posture. If you think one of your gerbils is ill, seek medical attention immediately.
By: ASPCA Ani-Med
Your gerbils are rather frisky little fellows, so you’ve got to keep yours busy to keep them happy. Playtime with safe toys in and out of the cage will keep your pets in good physical condition, too.
It’s important to provide toys and diversions that encourage your animal companions to do what comes naturally to them. Wild gerbils spend a lot of time curled up in secret hiding places, for example, and their domestic counterparts also love to chill out in enclosed spaces. You can put a small box or a flower pit in their cage, or arrange a few rocks into a small cave. Gerbils are major diggers, too, so a small box filled with bedding material will be much appreciated. And PVC pipes, plastic connecting tubes and cardboard tubes from toilet tissue and paper towels are great for fulfilling their inherent urges to tunnel and burrow.
Another good toy for your pets is the exercise wheel. Some individuals love ’em, and some ignore them completely. You should set one up in the cage to find out if your pets are big on running. Do make sure you get the solid plastic or metal kind without any rungs, however. Tiny tails and feet can easily get caught in runged exercise wheels.
We can’t stress enough that there must always be something in the cage for your little guys to gnaw on. Gerbils’ teeth grow continuously, so your pets need to chew–a lot!–to keep their choppers worn down and in tip-top condition. Make sure your gerbils have some twigs or branches that haven’t been treated with chemicals for this purpose. Very large branches can do double duty as super climbing surfaces in the cage.
Once you’ve hand-tamed your gerbils, you should let them out of the cage for supervised exercise every day–in a screened-off play area or secure room, please. You’ll need to remove any electrical wires from the area, as well as anything else that curious gerbils could, but shouldn’t, chew.
Be sure to keep them busy during these out-of-cage sessions by providing all the requisite cool gerbil toys–flower pots, boxes and tubes for exploring, and rocks and ladders for climbing and crawling. Note that gerbils have poor eyesight, so watch yours carefully to make sure they don’t fall off tables or chairs.
By: ASPCA Ani-Med
A commercial gerbil seed mix should make up the basis of your pets’ diet, but your little guys will delight in a bit of variety every now and then. Most gerbils aren’t too particular when it comes to treats–but you, however, will need to be discerning about what, and what not, to dish out at snacktime.
Every day, you should supplement your pets’ diet with small amounts of fresh veggies. They’ll especially love carrots, leaf lettuce, red peppers, cauliflower, turnips and cucumber, but you may need to experiment a bit to find your gerbils’ favorites. No onions, potatoes or raw kidney beans, please. Every other day, you can offer bits of sweet fruit such as apples, bananas, pears and strawberries.
If you’ve never given your gerbils fresh foods before, it’s a good idea to start out gradually. Too much, too soon can cause diarrhea. And keep in mind that a little goes a long way–your gerbils have tiny tummies, so the name of the game should be MODERATION. Half a handful of fresh foods is plenty.
Your animal companions may also enjoy a few pieces of air-popped popcorn, small bits of whole-wheat bread and a nibble or two of scrambled egg every couple of days. We know that many caretakers treat their pets to sunflower seeds, but go easy on these, please. They’re extremely high in fat, and can quickly lead to obesity. Topping the no-no list are alcohol, chocolate, sweets and sticky foods, such as toffee, that could cause your pets to choke.
What about treats that do double duty as interactive playthings? Chew on this! Small bits of dog biscuit and pieces of untreated tree branches will keep your gerbils’ teeth worn down AND give them something fun to do. Do not offer them wood from cedar, apricot, cherry and peach trees, as they are toxic to your little fellows.
We at the Dublin Animal Hospital trust that this information will help build a bond between you and your pet, and that our pet care FAQ pages will continue to be a resource to you, and for your Gerbil’s happiness and health for years to come.