Gerbils: miscellaneous health problems

Two medical conditions of gerbils that demand special mentions are nasal dermatitis and Tyzzer’s disease, therefore these are covered in separate factsheets. However, there are other medical conditions that affect gerbils that are briefly covered here.

Older gerbils commonly develop a number of spontaneous neoplasms (abnormal mass of tissue) most commonly affecting the skin, adrenal gland, kidney, spleen, intestine and the female reproductive tract.

The most frequently seen neoplasms include leiomyomas (muscle mass), subcutaneous fibrosarcomas (malignant tissue tumour), sebaceous and adrenal adenomas (benign tumour), sebaceous adenocarcinomas (cancer), splenic hemangiomas (tumour of blood vessels), duodenal adenocarcinomas (cancer of the small intestine – usually in males), and malignant melanomas (skin cancer). Diagnosis is based on clinical course of the disease and histopathology (microsopic examination of tissue).

Other syndromes commonly seen in aged gerbils include cystic ovaries (20% of all females) and chronic interstitial glomerulonephritis (a type of kidney disease). Cystic ovarian disease accounts for the majority of cases of decreased fertility in breeding aged gerbils. Gerbils with glomerulonephritis develop polyuria (increased urine production) and polydipsia (increased thirst), and progressive weight loss clinically. Chronic interstitial glomerulonephritis may occur in combination with neoplastic lesions.

Yes, gerbils have delicate tails so you should be careful when handling them.

Fractures of the tail vertebrae, and slipping of the tail skin can all occur with improper handling. This usually involves picking up animals by the end of the tail. Tails can also be injured when caught in gerbil wheels or other such toys, and also when playing with other gerbils.

A gerbil’s tail will usually heal very quickly without veterinary attention, but in some cases surgical amputation with cautery (silver nitrate cautery) and supportive post-surgical care.

Hair loss on the tail is sometime seen in cages that are overcrowded; hair will normally grow back once the cage population is reduced.

An unkept, matted hair coat is often an indicator of excessive humidity levels in the environment (50% relative humidity). Rough looking hair is also the most frequent physical reflection of active disease in most rodents; if you notice this in your gerbil you should take him to see your vet.

This problem is often seen in animals kept in solid-topped aquariums or microisolator cages. These should be fitted with a ventilated lid which will allow adequate air exchange to remove excess moisture which will prevent an excessively humid environment for your gerbil.

Aminoglycosides (bacterial antibiotics) are toxic to gerbils. Antibiotic ointments containing aminoglycosides have caused death in gerbils, presumably from ingesting the ointment. They have also been seen to experience neuromuscular paralysis from impaired acetylcholine (a chemical found in the nervous system) release.

Tapeworm infections (Hymenolepis nana or H. diminuta) have been infrequently reported to cause clinical signs of dehydration and diarrhoea during heavy infections in a wide variety of rodents.

Tapeworm infections have not been reported in the gerbil, but the lack of host specificity of H. nana makes the risk of infection possible in any rodent. Because of the concern for human infection, tapeworm infections in gerbils should be definitively diagnosed.

Salmonella enteritis (inflammation of the intestines caused by the Salmonella bacteria), along with protozoal infestation and food deprivation, have all been reported to be causes of enteritis in gerbils. The affected animal may rarely have moderate to severe diarrhoea, but frequently displays a rough hair coat, weight loss, depression and dehydration. Acute death will sometimes be encountered.

Gross lesions may include a congested liver, gastrointestinal distension (enlargement) and a fibrinosuppurative peritonitis in gerbils with salmonellosis. Positive culture of Salmonella spp should indicate concern for personnel safety. No treatment has been reported to be effective and severely affected colonies should be depopulated.