Gerbil Care


Where to Find Gerbils
Choosing a Home for Gerbils
Shopping List for New Gerbils
Basic Care
Cleaning Your Gerbils’ Tank
Is My Gerbil Sick?
Advanced Gerbilling

Gerbil Care for Kids

Kids' Drawing Here’s an easy-to-read gerbil care page for kids.
Art by Sophia K.

Gerbilmania

Shawsheen River Gerbils’ own newsletter.
Issue 1 (July 04)
Issue 2 (Aug 04)
Issue 3 (Apr 05)
Issue 4 (May 05)

Gerbils in the Classroom

Coming Soon! Special info for teachers who share their classrooms with gerbils.

Advanced Gerbilling

Gerbilariums: Recycled Art for Gerbils
Seeing the Vet
Elderly and Bereaved Gerbils
Coming Soon!  Building a Secure Split Cage
Gerbil Shows

AGS Banner

The Whole Story (Links)

The American Gerbil Society’s online Care Manual is the definitive source.
Valley Vets of the UK has a great site on gerbil care.

Basic Care

Short & sweet... here’s what gerbils need:

  • Gerbil food & water daily (rough guide: 1/2 tbsp per gerbil per day; there should always be a little food in tank)
  • Fresh veggies or hay every day or a few times a week. Remove uneaten veggies at next meal.
  • Clean the water bottle weekly
  • Clean tank every 2-3 weeks with warm water & a small amount of hand-dishwashing soap; rinse well. If litter gets wet (from leaking water bottle, or gerbils piling litter against it), remove litter and clean tank.
  • Occasionally or when your gerbils’ fur looks greasy, give them a sand bath. Place a little chinchilla dust or sand in small plastic container and they will roll in it. Remove it when they are bored or begin to chew container.
  • Keep temperature 65-80°F. Avoid drafts (window, A/C) and direct sun.
  • Give them something to chew (box, tube) every other day.
  • Handle them as much as possible - they love attention!
  • If your gerbil seems lethargic, moves awkwardly, won’t eat, has diarrhea, suddenly becomes nippy, or acts or looks strangely in any way - he or she is sick - see a vet. (Find a vet...)
gerbils love hay
A little hay or fresh veggies every day helps keep digestive systems in order - and it’s yummy, too!
sand bath
Gerbils frolic in a bath of chinchilla sand or dust in a wide ceramic bowl.


Choosing a Home for Gerbils

Glass, Wire or Plastic?

tank with gerbilsWeighing all factors, I feel the best gerbil home by far is a simple glass aquarium with a wire-mesh lid. It is inexpensive; many pet stores sell tanks for $8 or less. Or you might find a old one at a yard sale or even curb-side on trash day. The tank does not have to be water-proof but do check a used tank for sharp edges, and never use one with broken or cracked glass. New or used, clean it thoroughly with soap and water before use.

Because gerbils dig and chew so much, they will quickly destroy all the plastic parts of a Habitrail or similar plastic housing. A wire-mesh cage with a plastic bottom can work, but gerbils’ enthusiastic digging means litter will be flying out of the cage and onto the floor. You may have heard aquariums are not good housing for rodents. Larger rodents with stronger and more copious urine (like rabbits and guinea pigs) can suffer if an excess of ammonia gas builds up an aquarium (unless it is kept very clean). But it is not true for gerbils, whose efficient desert-born metabolism lets them use every drop of water from their food, thereby producing very little urine.

The size of the aquarium to buy depends on how many gerbils you will keep. 2 or 3 gerbils can live happily in a 10-gallon tank. (If you have three in there, expect to clean it more often.) Four or more would need more spacious accomodations. Very large clans are not generally recommended for other reasons, so a 10 to 20 gallon tank should do for most gerbil housing.

For a few extra dollars, a stick-on aquarium thermometer is a good investment. While it is not as accurate as a standard room thermometer, it will help you stay on top of very important temperature regulation, described below.

Put a Lid on It!

A lid is a good investment, whether or not you have other pets or children in the house. Gerbils can easily jump out of tanks, especially when they’ve raised the litter level with the remains of the tubes and boxes they’ve chewed up for you. If your gerbil makes a get-away during the day while you’re at work, it may be very hard to find him, and he may find a way out of the house. You may pay more for the lid than the tank, but get a lid!

Wire mesh lids are usually available in the reptile section of most pet stores or on the Internet. These can be very simple (a metal rectangle with wire mesh) or more elaborate, with hinges, a door in the middle, etc. My advice is to buy the simplest lid available. The little doors, for instance, are cute, but getting a gerbil out of a tank through any opening smaller than the lid itself is hard. Far better to simply lift the lid off! (The one exception is if you are introducing two gerbils using a Split Cage. In that case, a hinged, two-part lid is valuable.)

Clips are useful if you have animals or small children in the house. Secure clips may keep the lid on even if the tank gets pushed off its perch, so if you have a dog or cat who might be hunting the gerbils, definitely consider clips. We discuss clips and children more below.

Where in Your Home?

People tend to spend far less time choosing the location of the tank in their homes than they do shopping for the tank in the store. Actually, the decision of where to put the tank in your home is far more difficult, and more important for the gerbils’ safety and health, than what you house them in.

Choose the location of your gerbils’ tank with care. The key safety issues are temperature control, daily contact, safe removal, and supervision of children. You may also want to consider the fact that the gerbils will have as a side-effect some mess - seeds and hay will spill, for instance. Also, you’ll need at least some storage for their food, a wheel, boxes and tubes awaiting "chew-cycling", etc. So pick a spot where clean-up is easy, and you don’t mind (or can hide) their equipment.

Temperature Control

Even though gerbils are descended from desert animals, they cannot endure extremes of heat or cold. In the wild, they would have deep burrows to escape the elements, but in a tank, they have only a few inches of litter. As a rule of thumb, consider your own comfort. If the temperature range is comfortable for you, it will be okay for gerbils: 65-80°F is comfortable and safe for all.

The day before your gerbils come home, check the spot you’ve chosen every two hours or so for climate-control issues. You’ve purchased a tank with an attached aquarium thermometer, put it in the spot and check its temperature gauge. Or put a regular room thermometer there.

Be especially careful of the following:

Daily Contact

The old expression “out of sight, out of mind” can have very bad consequences for your gerbils. They cannot bark, meow, or squawk for your attention, so put them where you will see them every day! Certainly, when they are new and exciting, everyone in the house will check them frequently. But as you grow accustomed to them, it can be too easy to forget to feed them and check their litter and water bottle every day. Daily contact will make you and your gerbils enjoy a better relationship.

Supervision of Children

Child and gerbilChildren are often the driving force behind a gerbil acquisition, and children’s bedrooms are a frequent destination for the gerbil tank. They have the advantages of daily contact and usually good temperature control, and you can close the door to take gerbils out safe from other pets. However, before you agree to put the gerbils in your child’s room, consider a few things carefully.

First, is your child is mature enough not to play with your gerbil in inappropriate ways when she is quietly out of your sight in her room? Children younger than 10 or so often think of gerbils as living toys. They give them rides in doll carriages or on Barbie’s carousel. They take them out for a “run”, then forget them. They challenge them to walk across ledges, or climb the cage screen, or place them inside boxes or bags, or toss them in the air. They put them inside their clothing (which can also lead to a nasty bite). Without meaning harm, your child’s play can be terrifying or deadly for a small animal.

Even if your child is mature enough, or you feel he understands how delicate his new pets are, consider that your child may entertain friends in his room. Not all of these friends will be as trustworthy as your child. Even if your child understands the risks, he or she will find it hard to say “no” to a persuasive friend’s bad idea. And even if two children are handling gerbils as gently as possible, children sometimes flinch or shy away from the tiny scrambling feet and claws and drop the gerbil. A gerbil loose underfoot with a couple of shrieking, giggling children can easily be stepped on and killed.

Public spaces are often a better choice for gerbils in a family with young children. If you do place gerbils in the bedrooms of children under age 10, establish a rule that gerbils can be handled only with an adult around, or at least that an adult must be present when friends handle gerbils. (Keep in mind there is some risk to the friends, too! A gerbil bite can be painful, and you’ll feel badly if a child gets bitten at your house.) Use clips to enforce the rule and if it is not followed, move the gerbils to the family room or kitchen where they are in plain view.

Safe Removal

Hopefully, you will want to handle your gerbils every day or so. Gerbils that get a lot of contact will run up your arm, sit on your shoulder, sniff your ear, and crawl happily all over you, their human jungle gym. But if you have cats, dogs or other hunting animals in the house, you may want to choose a room with a door so that you can safely lock other pets out while you enjoy your gerbil time.

Perhaps you don’t have a room with a door that fits the other criteria described above, or you just prefer to keep your gerbils in the living room or kitchen in the center of things. In that case, take the gerbils into the bathroom occasionally, lock the door, and let them have a fun run in the (dry) tub. You can add toys or boxes for them to enjoy, or you can climb in yourself - you make a very interesting play structure! You may notice them roll on the cool porcelain. If so, sprinkle a little chinchilla dust in the corner and let them take a dust bath. (After the gerbils are out, you can wash it away or sweep it out with a hand broom).

There’s No Place Like Home

If you did your homework, your gerbils will be safe from many common accidental injuries and illnesses, and you’ll be set for years of fun with your new friends. Enjoy!



Cleaning Your Gerbils’ Tank

Cleaning your gerbils' tank is easy and will take just a few minutes. While the tank is being cleaned, put your gerbils in a safe place such as a critter-keeper, or in the bathtub (as long as you don't need the tub to clean the tank! And close the bathroom door against cats and dogs!) Then simply:

Into your now clean and dry tank, add fresh bedding (Carefresh, corncob or aspen). Sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons of extra food around for your gerbils to dig and find. Add some nesting material (Eco-bedding, Carefresh Ultra, or torn-up unscented toilet paper). Toss in a new tube or box for fun.

Rinse the water bottle thoroughly with hot water. Use a pipecleaner to clean gunk out of the spout. Refill with cold water.

Return your gerbils to their tank and watch them investigate their curiously new world!


Is My Gerbil Sick?

Gerbils have a reputation as low-maintenance pets, and for the most part this is true. Many gerbils will live out their whole lives without needing to see a vet. Gerbils do not require annual exams or shots. Sometimes, however you will see a symptom or a change in your gerbil’s behavior that concerns you. Here are some common gerbil ailments and some home-spun, wives’- tale advice. This advice is no substitute for a vet’s exam! If you cannot help your gerbil with these simple measures, see a vet.

My Gerbil... It might be...
has diarrhea

unless you have recently given him or her a lot of unusual foods or veggies, diarrhea is a serious symptom which could affect your own health (more...). See the vet. If you cannot see the vet immediately, start emergency ornicycline treatment. You might want to provide a warm corner with a heat lamp or reptile heater for comfort. Heat only one part of the tank so s/he can choose a comfy spot.

Wash hands thoroughly after handling the gerbil, its bedding or anything in/around the tank, including the lid. If you have more than one tank, isolate the tank with the sick gerbil from the other tanks, but do not remove his/her cagemates until after you talk with the vet. (They may need treatment too.)

seems to be tilting its head to one side

if you observe this behavior when your gerbil is standing on its hind legs, and if your gerbil is pink-eyed and sways slightly when s/he does this, it is probably okay. Pink-eyed gerbils sometimes display this head-tilt & sway behavior: some say it is a way of them focusing their poorer eyesight.

If however this behavior comes on suddenly, is true at all times (not just when standing up prarie-dog style), or seems to also affect the gerbil’s behavior or energy level, or is accompanied by kicking or scratching at an ear, your gerbil could have an ear infection or a middle-ear tumor. See the vet.

is digging madly in the corner normal. Gerbils do this all the time. Give him or her a tube if the noise bothers you.
is lethargic, sleeps more, isn’t running on the wheel if your gerbil is getting older (2 years or so), and the change has been gradual, it might just be normal aging. However, a sudden change in behavior is suspect. Watch your gerbil closely for 24 hours and observe what you see. If you keep weight records, weigh your gerbil again. If something has definitely changed, behaviorally, in his/her appearance, or you observe a significant weight gain or loss, see the vet.
has bugs crawling on him! mites. Bummer. You can choose one of two treatments: do-it-yourself, or get help from the vet. (1) To do it yourself, you'll need to get small animal mite spray from the pet store. Then follow the instructions on the AGS Care Page for Mites. Or, (2) your vet can prescribe Ivermectin, which you will dose orally; it will destroy the mites.

has lost part of his tail! There's blood and bone showing!

injured tail

your gerbil has “degloved” his tail. Try to judge if your gerbil is in pain. If she is squeaking, hiding, nips you, or has her ears plastered back, she probably is in pain, and you should see the vet for an amputation. It can be expensive, but it will solve the problem right away, and your vet will give her antibiotics.

If your gerbil seems completely normal, the wound will eventually heal. The exposed bone will fall off. However, you must keep the wound clean. Wash it and apply antibiotic ointment twice a day. Find a bedding that won't stick to the wound but will be soft. Torn up tissue paper might be best, or shredded brown paper “Eco-Bedding”. Or you can shred paper yourself with a home shredder. Change it frequently to minimize infection, and put your gerbil on a course of emergency ornacycline treatment.

seems to be paralyzed on one side; is dragging around, or can't fully open one eye

a stroke. Gerbils do seem to be prone to this.
Sometimes, gerbils will retire to their nest after a stroke for a day or two, then emerge seemingly better. Sometimes the damage is obvious and permanent. In either case, s/he is likely to have another stroke later on.

The key now is quality of life. As long as your gerbil can continue to enjoy normal, gerbilly things, like digging, grooming, eating and chewing, then just enjoy your time together. However, over time you may see his or her abilities deteriorate. Don’t wait until your gerbil is curled up unmoving and you are trying to hand-feed it seeds while it bites you. Once your gerbil cannot enjoy life, see the vet for humane euthanasia.

looks thin; her head looks more pointy, and I can feel her backbone if sudden, if accompanied by diarrhea, or the gerbil’s sides have sunken in suddenly, treat as above under diarrhea (namely, see the vet).
If the weight loss has been more gradual, first check your gerbil’s teeth. Gerbils should have two nice, fairly long top teeth and two very short lower teeth. The mouth should be able to close fully. If your gerbil is not chewing cardboard voraciously and not eating well, teeth could be the problem. Try a soft diet for a couple of weeks, then check the teeth again. If they still don't look right... you know, see the vet..

Keep in mind that gerbils, as prey animals, are hardwired by nature to hide their illness from you until they are so sick they cannot mask their symptoms. Therefore, once your gerbil’s behavior or appearance is noticeably different, he or she is quite sick. In these circumstances, time is of the essence. Do not wait to see what happens. Take your gerbil to the vet.


Seeing the Vet

How do you find a vet experienced with small animals to treat your gerbil? This can be difficult as many vets do not see many small animals. Try these sources to find a vet familiar with gerbils. (Thanks to the AGS members list for these suggestions!)

http://www.avma.org/statevma/default.asp - the American Veterinary Medical Association’s database of state Veterinary Medical Associations lets you search by specialty within your state.

http://www.aemv.org - the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians lists veterinarians by state under the link for geographical location.

http://www.aav.org - the American Association of Avian Vets. Avian vets often treat other exotics as well.

http://www.ratfanclub.org/vetref.html - a list of vets recommended by the Rat Fan Club for Eastern and Midwest US.

http://www.guineapigs.info/vets/vetcheck/index.php - a list of guinea pig (cavy) vets

For people in the Northwest Boston, MA area, we recommend Dr. William Sager, Sager Animal Hospital, 436 Great Road, Acton, MA 01720, (978) 263-3535.


Elderly and Bereaved Gerbils

elderly gerbilGerbils live a happy and active but short life. Gerbils’ longevity averages about 3 years, although they can live to 5 years or even longer. When a gerbil does pass away, you will be left with the problem of how to handle its surviving partner. Gerbils are highly social animals, and they do not like to live alone. Recognizing the signs of aging in your pet may help prepare you for the decisions you must make when one of your gerbil friends goes on to “Gerbil Heaven”.

Signs of Aging

Even by two or two and a half years, you may notice signs of aging in your beloved pet. Your gerbil may slow down a bit, moving less around the tank, sleeping more. He or she may have less interest in his or her wheel, and may chew up tubes and boxes with less gusto.  These changes may be most noticeable in comparision with its partner; if you regularly see one gerbil up and about while the other sleeps soundly in the nest, it may mean that one of your gerbils is slowing down.

When your gerbil reaches two years of age, monitor its health and behavior more closely. Consider investing in a digital scale ($25 or so) and weigh your gerbils once a month or more, keeping a written record. Any steady or sudden loss or gain of weight could be a sign of trouble. Weight loss could mean your gerbil’s teeth are getting too long (because of reduced chewing), or an underlying medical condition may be present. Weight gain, particularly rapid gain, can indicate a tumor or other disease. These conditions should be brought to a vet’s attention promptly.

The End of Life

Some elderly gerbils will show no particular decline in function, and then suddenly one day, you visit the tank to discover he or she cannot move. Or, you might watch your gerbil slowly shutting down, sleeping most of the time, and perhaps grumpy and nippy when handled. The important thing to observe is whether your gerbil can or cannot take pleasure in normal gerbil activities: chewing, nesting, digging, grooming, eating, drinking and running in the wheel. As long as your gerbil is doing what gerbils like to do, let him or her continue doing it. But when the time comes that your gerbil has no interest in anything but sleeping, or cannot move around to feed itself, the merciful course of action is to see your vet about letting your gerbil go.

The Survivor

When one of your gerbils passes away, the other may at first seem shocked or distressed. He or she may sit quietly in a corner, or may hunt around the tank as if looking for his lost friend. His immediate sorrow may be consoled by extra attention from you, by cleaning the cage to remove the scent of his missing friend, by adding new toys or diversions, or by putting the tank in a room where there are other gerbils present. (Throw everyone in the room a box so that there is lots of noise of scurrying and digging!)

Other gerbils may show no change in behavior after the loss of its partner. It doesn’t mean your gerbil is hard-hearted! Even though your gerbil may act the same, he or she will live a longer, healthier life with a new companion.

So, the next step is to get a new friend for your gerbil. If your elderly gerbil died of a sudden (and possibly contagious) illness, you may wish to wait a week or so to observe the survivor for symptoms. A week or so alone will also increase your remaining gerbil’s interest in a new friend, easing the introduction process. Use this week of waiting to investigate sources for a new gerbil pet. Keep your survivor busy with affection and entertainment.

What Kind of New Friend?

The new friend you choose will depend on the gender and age of your survivor. This table gives suggestions about the easiest and most-likely-to-succeed introductions, using the Split Cage Method:


Male
Female
Young (< 6 mo)
Another young male
Another young female
Adult (6 mo-2 years)
1 or 2 young males
A younger adult female
Senior (2 yrs+)
2 young males
A male (any age)

The rationale behind these recomendations is as follows. Males tend to be very nurturing, and generally will accept younger males without difficulty. If your survivor is already elderly himself, pairing him with two young males rather than one lets you avoid repeating this exercise again in the near future.

Females, on the other hand, are more particular about new partners. Ideally, a new female partner should be about the same size as your survivor, so that the newcomer has a chance of holding her own if the introduction gets testy. Our suggestion of introducing a male to your elderly female gerbil may at first sound shocking, but females generally cannot have pups past the age of two or two-and-a-half, and a female may accept a male more readily. Therefore, a male-female pairing may have the best chance of success with an older female left alone.

Gerbils Alone

If for any reason you are feeling like you’d rather not bring in a new friend and continue your gerbil hobby, leaving your gerbil alone may seem like the only option. If your surviving gerbil is himself very elderly (more than three years old), you can take consolation that he or she probably will not have too much time alone. However, he or she will live more happily with a friend. You might see if another family would like to the experience of re-pairing your elderly gerbil and taking over the hobby. If your gerbil must stay alone, lots of attention from you, frequent grooming with a small brush, good food, and a warm nest will help make his or her last months more joyful. Ideally, though, you will bring another friend into your elderly gerbil’s life, as there is no substitute for a good friend!


Gerbil Shows

Gerbil Show

Gerbil shows are run by the American Gerbil Society. Any AGS member can show his or her gerbils in a show. Gerbils are judged for how well they meet standards for color, conformation, and temperament.

As a true gerbil lover, you cannot find any other place in this world where you can immerse yourself completely, at least for one day, among people who share your love for these adorable little creatures. The Gerbil Show world is a small but tight-knit band of friendly people who love to talk gerbils, answer questions, compare pedigrees, and swap stories. Many are gifted crafters and builders with gerbil toys, jewelry, art work, cages and other gear to sell.

The AGS holds an annual show in the Midwest in the Fall, and in the Northeast in the Spring. Additional shows may be added over time. Consider attending the next gerbil show in your area.

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