Category: rodents

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.

Hamsters: a history

Hamsters are small, virtually tailless, velvet-furred rodents with enormous cheek pouches. They originated in the Middle East and south eastern Europe. The most common and popular breeds, both as pets and laboratory animals, is the golden or Syrian hamster.

Color and hair-type varieties of the golden hamster include cinnamon, cream, white, and “teddy bear” (the long-haired variety). Most of the hamsters sold as pets or used in research are the descendants of 3 litter mates domesticated in 1930.

  • Scientific name: Mesocricetus auratus.
  • Potential life span: 2-3 years.
  • Adult body weight: 100-150 grams (adult females are slightly larger than adult males).
  • Desirable environmental temperature range: 18-24°C/65-75°F.
  • Desirable relative humidity range: 30-70%.
  • Recommended age at 1st breeding: male: 10-14 weeks; female: 6-10 weeks.
  • Length of oestrous (heat) cycle: 94 hours.
  • Gestation (pregnancy) period: 15.5-16 days.
  • Average litter size: 5-10 young.
  • Age at weaning: 3 weeks.

The cheek pouches are a relatively unique anatomic feature of hamsters. They are actually a cavernous outpouching of the oral (mouth) cavity on both sides, extending alongside the head and neck to the shoulders. These pouches are used to store food and allow the hamster to transport food from where it is gathered to the hamster’s den or nest. The food is then eaten later, at the hamster’s leisure.

Hamster owners not familiar with these cheek pouches often panic when seeing them fully distended for the first time, thinking they represent tumours or abscesses. Another relatively unique anatomic feature of hamsters is the paired glands in the skin over the flanks. These appear as dark spots within the hair coat and are much more obvious in males than females. These glands are used to mark a hamster’s territory and also have a role in sexual behaviour.

Hamsters are very popular pets today because of their availability, affordability, small size, cuddly appearance, often docile temperament and relatively clean habits. They are not very long-lived, which can be disconcerting to owners, especially children.

Many parents, however, believe that having their children experience the relatively short period of companionship and subsequent death is a meaningful way to expose children to the “ups and downs” of life. For many years hamsters have been used in biomedical research laboratories. Consequently, their medical problems have been traditionally approached on a group basis, rather than on an individual basis.

As a result, very little practical information exists on the medical care of individual hamsters.

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.

Mice and rats: 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 rodent 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 rodent will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around it.

If your rodent’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 rodent must be fed a healthy diet and allowed regular exercise.

The closer your rodent’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.

Mice and rats 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.


Mice and rats 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 rodent 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.

Mice and rats: parasitic diseases

Rodents are susceptible to skin disease which can be caused by numerous infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Cage mates may be responsible for hair loss and/or wounds to the skin.

Pet mice and rats may be infested with a variety of external parasites. Mites, nearly microscopic, spider-like organisms, live on the skin surface and feed primarily on skin debris. They are transmitted by direct contact between infested and uninfested rodents. Signs of infestation range from mild scratching to severe scratching, with hair loss and ulceration of the skin.

Your vet should be consulted if mite infestation is suspected. Microscopic examination of a scraping of the skin is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment may include an injectable drug that has proven very effective in treating mange in a wide range of animals.

Lice may also infest the haircoats of pet mice and rats. They are flattened, wingless insects that suck tissue fluids and blood from the skin of the host. Lice are larger than mites and can usually be seen without a magnifying lens. Lice are most often transmitted by direct contact with infested bedding and between infested and uninfested individuals. Lice are usually found on the neck and body. They suck blood and can, therefore, cause anaemia (sometimes death) and transmit blood borne diseases to rodents. Louse infestations may also cause scratching, hair loss and skin wounds. You should consult your vet if you think your pet might have a louse infestation.

Allergies are also a suspected cause of skin disease of pet rodents. In these cases, it is wise to replace the bedding being used with plain white, unscented paper towelling. You should consult your vet if you think your pet is exhibiting signs of skin disease. Your vet will need to conduct some diagnostic tests to find out what is the cause; they will then prescribe appropriate treatment based on the results of these tests.

Tapeworms and pinworms are the most common intestinal parasites of pet mice and rats. They often go undetected unless present in large numbers. Signs of infection may include weight loss, inactivity, inappetence, constipation, and excessive licking and chewing of the rectal area and base of the tail.

Your vet can perform a stool examination to diagnose these parasites, and they will be able to recommend appropriate treatment. Pinworms are especially difficult (sometimes impossible) to eliminate from mice and rats. Transmission of these parasites to people is also possible but unlikely. Therefore, great care should be taken when handling and disposing of rodent faeces. Furthermore, contact between pet mice and rats, their faeces, and young children should be limited and always supervised by adults.