Do you have what it takes to be a gerbil guardian?
If you’re looking for a small, caged pet that’s awake when you are and loads of fun to boot, then gerbils are ideal for you! Intelligent, sociable, and with an in-built love of tunneling, gerbils are jolly little rodents that give you plenty to smile about.
Gerbil Biology Basics
Let’s get up close and personal by looking at gerbil biology. Gerbils have a lifespan of 3 – 4 years (sometimes longer), which compares favorably with 2 – 2 ½ years for hamster. Indeed, gerbils are almost the inverse of hamsters, because they love to live in groups (rather than singly) and mostly active during the day (rather than night.)
Gerbils hate being alone and love company, and do best when kept in same-sex groups. However, be warned! Mixing gerbil genders leads to a population explosion, since gerbils start to breed from around three months of age and produce a new litter of 4 – 10 babies every 24 days. Ooops!
Another nice-to-know fact is that gerbils are clean animals. This is on account of their desert heritage, which gifted them with kidneys that are very efficient at conserving water. Although they should always have access to fresh drinking water, they may not drink much and produce dry waste as a result – which is good news when it comes to cleaning out.
Gerbil Fun Facts
• Gerbils are great tunnellers, and love nothing better than a good dig
• Male gerbils make excellent fathers, and play a role in raising their young
• Unlike hamsters, gerbils don’t have cheek pouches
• Gerbils are the kangaroo of the rodent world, with back legs that a way longer than their front ones
• Wild gerbils hoard food in stores weighing up to 1.5kg
The tank gerbils are kept in is called a gerbilarium, but despite the fancy name it’s basically a large tank or aquarium with a a cage on top. However, make sure it has a secure wire lid as gerbils are great jumpers (those long back legs!) and will escape. Indeed, make sure they have plenty of room to play and dig. A basic recommendation size of gerbilarium for a pair of gerbils is 40 – 75cm by a height of 30 cm.
Wire cages are less suitable than glass, mainly because there’s nothing to stop a snow drift of bedding being kicked out when your gerbil starts digging. However, the drawback with a glass tank is the lack of ventilation, which is where that wire lid comes in. But also be ultra-careful to keep the tank out of direct sunlight as the temperature inside soon soars to dangerous levels.
Bedding and Tunneling
In the wild, gerbils escape the desert and scrubland heat by burrowing. They are veritable moles when it comes to underground excavations, digging long tunnels around 3 meters long, complete with lots of side chambers, entrances and exits.
It’s difficult to mimic this in a gerbilarium, but a good deep layer of bedding goes some way. Think along the lines of organic soil or peat, or a deep layer of Timothy hay. Also provide a nesting area, with super-cozy shredded paper inside. It’s best to avoid fluffy materials, since also this look and feel great, they can get tangled around limbs and cause serious harm.
As for a nest box, be aware gerbils love to chew! This means a plastic or wood box will be destroyed in short order. However a great alternative is a small clay flower pot, which is indestructible and secure.
Along with other desert dwelling species, gerbils are used to keeping themselves clean with dust baths. Offer a wide flat container filled with chinchilla sand (widely available from pet stores) so your gerbil can roll around and keep their coat clean and conditioned.
Food and Feeding
Going back to their roots, wild gerbils dine on a diet of grasses, seeds, bulbs, leaves, and herbage. To mimic this, most owners feed part of the diet as a commercial pelleted mix, with part as fresh fruit and veggies.
Variety is great but some foods are off the menu as they make gerbils unwell. Those foods NOT to feed include potatoes, tomato leaves, rhubarb, and grapes or raisins.
However, gerbils can cheerfully chomp on a selection of apples, broccoli, cucumber, carrots, cauliflower, fennel, melon, oranges, and pumpkin. Nom nom.
Heavy ceramic feeding bowls work best, as they are more difficult to tip over. That said, sometimes feeding time can get quite competitive, so to avoid fights it’s as well to scatter food over the bedding and allow the gerbils to forage. And oh yes, don’t worry if they bury their food…this is normal behavior. However, you may need to get rid of moldy foods for them…
When provided with the right conditions gerbils are generally healthy creatures. There biggest weakness is their teeth, which grow all the time. To keep them the correct length provide wooden chew toys or orchard wood (from pesticide free trees) so they can gnaw those incisors down.
And finally, as with any pet, check on them several times a day. Get used to what is normal for your gerbils, and if they seem more withdrawn, stop eating, or otherwise seem unwell then get them checked by a vet.