Category: gerbils

Gerbils: housing

In the wild gerbils live in burrows and spend the most of their time foraging for food, so you should try to mimic this environment for your gerbil when creating a home for him. Your gerbil will need plenty of room to eat, sleep and run around.

Gerbils should be kept in pairs or groups. Depending on the number of gerbils you have, you must make sure that the housing you choose is big enough for all of them.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they can be quite territorial.

Gerbils go through several sleep/active cycles in a 24 hours period, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Gerbils need to be kept indoors and careful thought must be given to where the cage will be kept. The temperature in the room should be constant, away from direct sunlight and draughts, and out of reach of any other pets.

Coming from a dry natural habitat gerbils are designed to conserve water, so produce small amounts of urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

A pair of gerbils don’t require a huge amount of space, but a tank of approximately 75 x 40 x 30cm will give them enough room to run about in and plenty of space to put in lots of toys.

The larger the tank the nicer it will be for your gerbils, allowing them more space to run around in and for creativity with furnishings and toys. If an aquarium is used, a ventilated lid will be necessary because gerbils can jump very well!

A wire cage with fairly narrow wire spacing will also work well. Plastic and wooden cages do not hold up very well to the gerbils’ chewing habits.

Ideally the cage will have two levels and two compartments so they can use one for the day and one to nest and hide in at night-time. Gerbils prefer to sleep separately at night, so you need to make sure each gerbil has their own nesting areas.

You could also provide an extra run for your gerbil so he can get extra exercise when you are about. However gerbils tend to be frightened of large open spaces, but once they get used to it they will love playing in a run that contains lots of toys, such as boxes, flowerpots, drain pipes and logs.

A wheel should be provided for exercise, but the wheel should be modified or wrapped, e.g. with duct tape, to provide a solid surface for them to run on and to prevent their tails from getting caught and injured in the open rungs of a typical hamster wheel.

Gerbils will explore and enjoy a variety of toys, such as empty toilet paper rolls, small boxes and nests. Keep in mind the gerbil will chew everything you put in its cage so make sure toys are non toxic and not harmful if accidentally ingested.

Gerbils: feeding a healthy diet

In the wild, gerbils live partly on dry seeds, but these are emergency rations for when something more nutritious is not available. Gerbils need some animal protein in their diet, so they will eat insects; but also eat fresh vegetable material.

It is recommended to feed a good variety of foods and leaving seed mixtures until completely eaten; otherwise some gerbils will pick out sunflower seeds and corn from seed mixtures, leaving the high protein, low fat seeds behind.

A good quality commercial gerbil mix will take the place of the seed part of your gerbil’s diet and you can feed a mixture of fruit and vegetables as well as a source of animal protein. The protein can be provided in the form of some complete cat food, chopped hard-boiled egg or insects.

To keep your pet trim, use fatty sunflower seeds and peanuts only as a treat. Feed the gerbils only what they’ll eat at the time, although this can be difficult to ascertain since they will take much of their food and bury it around the cage.

Gerbils enjoy fruits and vegetables, so try giving pears, apples, carrots and lettuce, and supply some untreated wood for them to have a chew on.

If you want to give your gerbils live insects, you will need to find a pet shop that specialises in reptile feeds. Lots of small lizards have to be fed on live insects, and things like mealworms and crickets are bred for this purpose. If you get insects from a shop, you can be sure they’ve had no contact with insecticides or other harmful chemicals. Crickets are better than mealworms for two reasons:

  1. Mealworms just sit there, but the gerbil gets exercise chasing the more active crickets.
  2. Mealworms are very, very low in calcium, which is essential for good bone strength – if gerbils eat too many mealworms, it can upset their calcium balance.

No, you don’t! Feeding live insects is probably only possible if you keep your gerbil in a big aquarium tank. If you don’t feed live insects, try cheese, meat, egg or yoghurt.

It isn’t a good idea to feed too many sunflower seeds, as they are high in fat and low in calcium. Commercial gerbil mixes do contain some sunflower seeds, and in small quantities these will do no harm, but they should not be a significant part of the diet.

However, gerbils particularly like sunflower seeds; you will notice that your gerbil will take out and eat all the sunflower seeds first; so you will need to make sure you do not feed too much mix otherwise your gerbil will eat his favourite seeds and not much else!

The best gerbil mixes are those that contain animal protein. These are sold in sealed packs, with a sell by date on them, this ensures the food is fresh and you can also check the vitamin content on the packet. When buying this type of gerbil food, be sure to buy small quantities, this will ensure the food is always fresh. Once you have opened a new packet, store it in an airtight, insect-proof container.

Gerbils normally thrive on a good quality gerbil mix, but they may have deficiency problems when fed home-made diets, sunflower seed diets or table scraps which lack specific nutrients. Signs of deficiencies will manifest as in other mammals. A feeding level of 5 grams of gerbil mix per day has been recommended to prevent obesity, which can predispose them to islet cell hyperplasia and hyperglycemia.

Gerbils: epilepsy

Gerbils can suffer from spontaneous epileptiform seizures (epilepsy). These seizures may be precipitated by sudden stress, handling or introduction to a novel environment. Incidence of this syndrome is about 20% in natural populations.

Epilepsy appears to be inherited, and both seizure-resistant and seizure-sensitive strains have been developed by selective breeding. Inbred animals can have up to 100% incidence.

Seizures vary in severity from mild hypnotic episodes, characterized by cessation of activity and twitching of the pinnae and vibrissae, to severe myoclonic convulsions followed by tonic extensor rigidity. Post-seizure fatality occurs in <1% of affected animals.

There is no permanent damage – seizure onset occurs at 2-3 months of age with seizure incidence and severity increasing with age until the animal reaches six months of age.

A refractory period of up to five days can follow more severe seizures.

Research has shown that the seizure response can be almost completely suppressed in genetically predisposed animals if they are frequently stimulated by handling during the first three weeks of life.

No – anticonvulsant therapy is neither necessary nor recommended.

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.

Gerbils: a history

Gerbils, i.e. Mongolian gerbils, are small rodents with long furry tails that have a tuft of fur at the end. They are larger than mice, but smaller than typical hamsters (syrian hamsters, not dwarf hamsters).

The wild type coloration is “agouti”, where each hair is banded, usually gray next to the skin, then a yellowish colour, then ticked with black, with off-white hair on the belly. However, through selective breeding, several lovely colour variations are now seen.

In their dry native habitats of Asia and Africa gerbils have few natural enemies and seem more curious than fearful of humans. The Mongolian gerbil, the most common species sold in stores, is a born burrower and will develop networks of tunnels with food storage, nesting, and sleeping sites. Gerbils are 4-6 inches long, excluding the tail, and have a lifespan of 3-5 years.

The gerbil family is made up of roughly 100 species. There are 14 basic groups of gerbils. The species most commonly kept as pets is the Mongolian Gerbil, whose scientific name is Meriones unguiculatus. Gerbils whose scientific name begin with “Meriones” are also known as “jirds” which roughly means “large desert rodent”.

The Mongolian gerbil is therefore also known as the Clawed Jird. Other jirds also kept as pets include Sundevall’s Jird (Meriones crassus), the Libyan Jird (Meriones libycus), and Shaw’s Jird (Meriones shawi). Shaw’s Jird is large, even tempered and makes a good pet, and when fanciers use the term jird they are often referring to this species. Therefore, the term “gerbil” most commonly refers to the Mongolian Gerbil, and the term “jird” most commonly refers to Shaw’s Jird. Confused? There’s more:

There are two other species of gerbil which do not belong to the genus Meriones, but that are also referred to as jirds. These are the Bushy Tailed Jird (Sekeetamys calurus), and the Fat Tailed Jird (Pachyuromys duprasis). However, these are more commonly referred to as the “bushy tail” and the “duprasi” respectively. There are many other species of gerbil, some of which are less commonly kept as pets, but they are too numerous to cover here.

Gerbil fans say that gerbils make good pets due to their temperament, and ease of care. They tend to be easily tamed and are not as skittish as some other small rodents.

They also aren’t as inclined to bite unless threatened (as always there are exceptions). Coming from a dry natural habitat they are designed to conserve water, so produce scant urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they are quite territorial.

Gerbils: Tyzzer’s disease

Gerbils can suffer from a number of health problems, but Tyzzer’s disease is a very serious infectious disease that affects the liver and is usually caught from mice. Good hygiene, the use of good quality bedding and burrowing material will help prevent this disease.

Tyzzer’s disease is caused by the bacteria Clostridium piliforme. The incidence of spontaneous disease is quite low, occurring in sporadic outbreaks. Infection occurs by contact with infected animals or bedding, via the faecal-oral route.

Unlike most other rodents and rabbits, gerbils are innately susceptible to expressing overt Tyzzer’s disease without a need for physiologic stress or steroid therapy to aid in disease development. This is an acute, usually fatal disease in gerbils.

Diarrhoea in gerbils is extremely rare. In the unlikely event your gerbil has diarrhoea, your nose will soon alert you to the problem. Your suspicions will be confirmed by staining around the anus and base of the tail. Diarrhoea in gerbils is unlikely to be caused by over-indulgence in fruit and vegetables as it can be in other rodents. Gerbils simply don’t like these foods enough to over-indulge. Diarrhoea in gerbils is likely to have a more serious cause and is sometimes the first sign of the deadly Tyzzer’s disease.

In colony situations, high mortality rates can occur with some animals exhibiting depression, unthrifty appearance, and varying degrees of watery diarrhoea. Morbidity and mortality is highest in young gerbils and pregnant females, although all age groups can be affected.

No treatment is effective once the disease is clinically apparent due to the type of organism and its ability to sporulate. Treatment with antibiotics may decrease mortality.

Control is achieved by strict hygiene and the reduction of environmental and experimental stress and/or by elimination of exposed and symptomatic animals.

Disinfection of cages and equipment is best done with a disinfectant such as 1% bleach solutions.

Gerbils: routine health care

We are all familiar with the phrase “A healthy pet is a happy pet” – but there is probably also something to be said for keeping your gerbil happy in order to maintain its health. If you know your pet you will probably quickly recognise the signs that suggest it is not well.

A healthy gerbil will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around it.

If your gerbil’s weight remains constant then they are eating the right amount of food. You should be concerned if their appetite or water consumption suddenly changes or they suddenly start to gain or lose weight. When in good condition the coat should be shiny, soft and free of parasites.

Your gerbil must be fed a healthy diet and allowed regular exercise.

The closer your gerbil’s diet and environment is compared to how it would eat and live in the wild, the healthier and happier it will be. Giving them plenty of enrichment in also hugely important for their mental wellbeing.

A healthy diet is a balanced diet containing all the nutrients your pet requires.

Gerbils are omnivores, which means that, like us, they naturally eat mainly vegetable matter, but to keep in good health require some food of animal origin as well, e.g. cheese, insects, meat, egg, etc.

There are a number of measures that can help prevent your pet developing diseases. You should discuss the special needs of your pet with your vet.


Gerbils do not require vaccinations.

Dental care

All rodents have front teeth that grow continuously, so a high fibre diet is essential to allow the teeth to wear down naturally. You could provide something for your pet to gnaw on, for example a wood or hide chew toy. This will help to keep your pet’s teeth in good condition and prevent dental problems.

If you notice any signs of overlong teeth then your vet will be able to burr the teeth down and advise you further.

If your gerbil has a poor coat condition, dull eyes, dirty ears, eyes or nose it may indicate that they are unwell. Changes in behaviour (a normally happy and affectionate animal may become grumpy and avoid human contact, preferring to hide away by itself), altered appetite or water consumption should also alert you to the possibility that there may be a problem.

Most animals recover from illness in 24-48 hours – if your pet does not seem to be improving in this time or is getting worse then you should contact your vet.

Gerbils: parasitic diseases

Luckily gerbils generally don’t suffer from parasitic diseases, especially if they are kept in a clean, dry, warm environment. However there are some that you should keep an eye out for, just in case.

Although parasitic diseases are rare in gerbils, they can occur, however parasitism of the gerbil rarely causes clinical disease problems.

Problems seen include mange mites, blood lice, ringworm and intestinal worms.

Alopecia in aged or debilitated gerbils may be due to mange mites.

These mites are microscopic, so your vet will have to take a skin scrapes of affected areas which may reveal hamster demodectic mange mites, Demodex aurati or Demodex criceti.

Blood lice (also known as bird lice) are very small and are either red or brown in colour. They are often brought in by birds, or are found in contaminated bedding. Blood lice can also bite humans and other animals in the household.

To avoid your gerbil from becoming infested with blood lice, ensure it doesn’t come into contact with birds, and ensure your bedding is fresh and clean.

Blood lice can be treated with treatments available from your local pet shop.

Ringworm is a fungal disease of the skin, similar to Athlete’s foot in humans – it’s not a worm. Ringworm in also contagious for humans.

It is recognised by obvious red patches of circular hair loss. Your vet will be able to confirm the ringworm by looking at the bare spot with a fluorescent lamp, they can also take a few hairs from the affected area and place them inside a culture jar, fungus will grow over the next few days and then ringworm fungus can be detected.

Ringworm can be easily treated with cream and usually resolves within a week. Make sure to disinfect the cage, and wash your hands very well after handling your gerbil, if you suspect it has ringworm.

Intestinal parasites seen in gerbils may include mouse pinworms (Syphacia obvelata) which can be found in the caecum, and a small intestinal gerbil pinworm, Dentostomella translucida.

Syphacia eggs can be recovered on a cellophane tape test, while Dentostomella ova are identified by the faecal flotation test, used to determine the presence of roundworm eggs in faeces.

Gerbils are also commonly colonised by intestinal flagellated protozoa (Giardia and Tritrichomonas spp). No clinical signs of disease are usually associated with naturally occurring parasitic worm infections in gerbils.

Gerbils: nasal dermatitis

Nasal dermatitis is also known as “sore nose”, “facial eczema” and “facial dermatitis”. Incidence of the disease is higher in weanlings than in adults, but is a fairly common condition seen in gerbils.

Trauma, stress, hypersecretion/accumulation of Harderian gland secretions, and superficial bacterial infections, ie Staphylococcus spp, have all been associated with the development of nasal dermatitis.

Stresses such as overcrowding, weaning and environmental variations can cause an increased secretion of porphyrin-containing fluid from the Harderian gland.

Accumulation of these secretions around the nostrils and eyes may result in irritation, self-induced trauma and secondary bacterial infections.

If your gerbil has the condition you will notice the following signs: hair loss, redness of the skin, small areas of skin inflammation and frequent scab and ulcer formation are all features of the typical case.

The area around the nose is normally affected most severely, at least in early cases.

The area around the eyes frequently becomes involved in more chronic cases. Well-established, moist, ulcerative skin inflammation can spread to involve the remainder of the head, the forelimbs, chest and abdomen.

If you notice any of these signs, you should take your gerbil to the vet. In cases where secondary bacterial infections have become established, antibiotics may be required.

You will need to make sure that your general husbandry is good, making sure your gerbils are kept clean and a reduction of environmental and husbandry stresses will aid in the control of this disease.

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.