Everything you need to know about gerbils

Everything you need to know about gerbils

Gerbils are members of the rodent family, along with rats, mice, hamsters and other small furry animals. Interestingly the word ‘rodent’ is actually taken from the Latin word ‘rodere’, which means ‘to gnaw’. Anyone that owns a rodent can testify they gnaw a lot, so this adds some understanding to the translation.

Gerbils are popular household pets because they are friendly, curious, and active animals. They have a passive temperament and can provide endless hours of enjoyment watching run around their cages. They are low maintenance and easy to care for, making them a popular choice among first pets for children.

Originally from desert and semi-desert areas of Mongolia and Africa, Gerbils are adapt at living in hot, dry conditions and as such require less water than other rodents. You still need to have a fresh bottle on water available at all times, but the benefit of this to owners is that they urinate less than other rodents. This means less smell and cleaning out of their cage, a big plus for owners.

What do Gerbils eat?


Pellets suitable for gerbils are available from most pet stores or from suppliers online. These make up a bulk of a gerbils diet as they have been specially formed to provide most of the necessary nutrients they require. However, you should not rely on pellets solely as this is a relatively uninteresting and basic way to feed a gerbil.

Seed mixes

A gerbil’s diet should be supplemented with seeds, seed mixes are easily bought from any pet food supplier and help round off a balanced diet. While seeds will provide a lot of all-round nutritional value, the downside being that gerbils will pick out the seeds they like most and leave some of the other important ones.

The ideal gerbil diet is a balance of different foods, feeding your pet a variation of foods will help overcome the disadvantages of certain diets. A pelleted block diet with some loose seed mix and other treats will provide variety.

Some foods that can be used as treats and supplements (to be given on occasion):

  • Small pieces of fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Raisins
  • Small pieces of cheese
  • Mealworms
  • Breakfast cereal (non-sugared)

Looking after their teeth

Gerbil’s teeth continually grow throughout their lives, without the proper items for them to gnaw on they can potentially have issues with them. Chew sticks, wood, cardboard or other chew toys bought for this purpose will help. You can pick up sticks from your yard if you select them carefully, make sure there are no sharp thorns or any risk of poisoning your gerbil.

Do not worry if you notice a gerbils teeth turning yellow, this is completely normal. This is common among most rodents and is due to the high iron in their diets. You will become aware of any issues with teeth if your gerbil stops eating or appears to be in discomfort. If you think there is a serious issue always consult a professional veterinarian.

Gerbil housing

We are spoilt for choice nowadays with the amount of different cage types available for gerbils. There are glass tanks, wire cages, and plastic cages to choose from. The most popular choice is a plastic cage, they are light, fairly inexpensive and easy to clean out and add accessories.

When deciding on the size of the cage keep in mind that gerbils are social animals. They are happiest when they have plenty of room to run around, and areas to burrow. The American Gerbil Society recommends a minimum 5 gallons of space per gerbil, this should give you a guide to work to when looking at cages.

The necessities to equip your gerbil cage with are; a small water bottle, chewing items, nesting box, running wheel and a food bowl. Apply a generous amount of bedding over the floor in the cage and you are all set.

Do’s and don’ts when handling gerbils

Always handle gerbils near to the floor. They have a tendency to suddenly move and wriggle around, if they are close to the ground and happen to fall they will not get hurt.

If your gerbil sometimes bites, you can wrap it gently in a towel as you pick it up. The gerbil will feel secure and snug in the towel, and you don’t have to worry about your fingers being nibbled on.

Never pick up a gerbil by its tail, their tails are designed to come off as an escape mechanism from predators. It will not grow back and is quite traumatising for the gerbil, and the person handling it.

Always try to remain calm when handling a gerbil, if you are calm then the gerbil will feel safer and also be calmer.

What to do if gerbils bite

Unfortunately it is not uncommon to be bitten by gerbils. However, do not let this put you off owning them, there are a lot of things you can do to minimise the risk of being bitten. The main reasons gerbils bite are because they feel scared/threatened, they are defending themselves, and because they naturally like to gnaw on things.

You should always be working on making your gerbil feel more comfortable around you, this will lessen how fearful they feel and reduce the chance of them biting. If you have a gerbil from very a young age putting in the time early will help, handling them when they are young is much more effective. Older gerbils are harder to train or change their habits.

Read their body language, if you think they are acting defensive because they feel threatened at all – back off and give them some space. You may not always see the reason why they are acting defensively, but if you sense their stress levels rising just give them some space.

Some Gerbil tips and facts

When cleaning out their cage place items back into the cage in different places. This helps stimulate gerbil’s natural sense of curiosity, giving them a ‘new’ area to explore and keeping them active.

Gerbils have a longer lifespan than some rodents such as rats, or mice. They are expected to live around 4-5 years if well cared for.

Gerbils are social animals, especially when they are happy and in comfortable surroundings. They enjoy human interaction as well as from other gerbils.

Their tails are as long as their bodies and covered in fur. Gerbils are on average around 4 1/2 inches long.



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