Gerbils: behaviour

Gerbils make nice pets and are fascinating to watch. Gerbils are very social animals, and it is not a good idea to keep them singly. Pair bonded or family units of gerbils are usually quite affectionate with each other.

Gerbils love to play, chasing each other around, wrestling and boxing. They will also groom one another, sleep in piles, and cuddle together. Your gerbils will be much happier if kept at least in pairs (same sex unless you plan to breed, which requires a lot more care).

Some gerbils will fight, although this is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the play wrestling or boxing behaviour commonly exhibited. Often, one animal will appear distressed and loud high pitched squeaks may be heard, and the behaviour appears more intense and violent than play.

Some gerbils, however, just cannot seem to get along. Young gerbils in the wild are sent off to find their own territories, so family groups may begin fighting as the babies mature. If so, they need to be separated.

If you have a single gerbil, or if one of a pair dies, it can be very difficult to introduce a new gerbil, especially mature gerbils, i.e. greater than 8-10 weeks old.

It is best to keep a group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age, but if you need to introduce older gerbils, try and follow this advice:

  • Get a divided cage, or use a cage within a cage, to allow the gerbils to see and smell each other with no contact.
  • Place one gerbil in each side of the divider.
  • Several times a day, swap the gerbils from side to side, so that the gerbils get used to each others’ scent.
  • Once the gerbils appear curious and not aggressive to each other, the divider can be removed (about 3 days, usually).
  • Watch for 20 minutes, wearing leather gloves, so that the gerbils can be separated if fighting occurs.
  • If the gerbils fight, go back to the divided cage stage and repeat. If two or three tries with the divided cage trick doesn’t stop the fighting, they may never get along.
  • If there is no fighting after 20 minutes, the gerbils can be left as long as you are nearby if any problems arise. If they cuddle up to sleep, they will likely be okay.

Sometimes certain gerbils just don’t get along, so if gerbils persist in fighting, it may be necessary to just keep them separated.

This is something gerbils do when they are either excited or stressed, as a warning to other gerbils. The thumping is produced by pounding both hind legs on the ground.

Often, if one gerbil is startled and begins thumping, others in the enclosure or room will also begin thumping. It varies in loudness and tempo, depending on the urgency or meaning, but can be quite loud considering gerbils are so small!

The infectious nature of the thumping means that if some activity in the home produces a rhythmic thumping or clicking type noise, the gerbils may join in.

Young gerbils may do quite a bit of thumping, but often it seems that it is just a learning activity rather than a danger warning. Thumping is also an important part of the mating ritual.

Gerbils will often groom themselves, including each another.

As well as the benefits to their coats, this is an important part of their social interaction. Gerbils also appreciate being offered sand so they can have a dust bath – they will roll and play in the sand, which helps to clean their fur.

Gerbils make a high pitched squeaking noise, but this is usually as youngsters. Adults usually only vocalize when playing, if they’re excited or if stressed.

Gerbils, like most other rodents, are avid chewers and will chew their way through everything, even their cage furnishings, somewhat regularly.

It is important to provide appropriate chewing toys, like wooden blocks and branches, to allow the gerbils to indulge this natural chewing and gnawing activity.

In the wild, gerbils live in a complex system of tunnels and burrows, so it is nice to allow your gerbil to have room to burrow in their enclosure. A deep layer of wood shavings combined with hay will provide the perfect material to allow your gerbil to do some burrowing.

Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen, and this is used to mark items in their territory. Gerbils that rub their stomachs on their cage furnishings are simply marking their territory.