Gerbils are native to many parts of the world. The type of gerbil commonly kept as a pet is the Mongolian. These gentle, hearty little creatures are easily tamed and seldom bite, usually only if they feel threatened. Mongolian gerbils generally grow to about 4-inches with a tail of the same length. Through selective breeding, pet gerbils are available in a variety of colors, usually with white fur on their bellies. Well cared for gerbils have an average life span of 2 to 4 years. Mongolian gerbils are not nocturnal although they are sometimes active at night. They will go through several sleep/active cycles in a 24 hour period.
Gerbils are social creatures and do not do well as a solitary pet. It is highly recommended to keep at least two. Keeping a same-sex pair from the same litter is much preferred. If gerbils are introduced when they are young there is an excellent chance they will be a successful match. Males and females should not be kept together unless you plan to breed, which will require a good deal more care.
Gerbils love to play, chasing each other around, wrestling and boxing. They will also groom each other, cuddle together and sleep in piles. Gerbils are much happier when kept in at least pairs. Some gerbils will fight, although this may be difficult to distinguish from the play behavior commonly exhibited. One gerbil may appear distressed and loud high-pitched squeaks may be heard. When fighting, the activity is more intense and violent than when playing. Some gerbils, ( just like some people), do not get along. If this is the case, they need to be separated.
A good minimum size cage for a pair of gerbils is 12x24x12-inches but because gerbils are very active, a larger cage is preferred. Glass aquariums may also be used and are preferred over wire cages by some owners. Aquariums will allow a deep layer of bedding so gerbils can burrow. To prevent escapes and to allow for ventilation, a secure mesh wire lid is necessary. Gerbils have a tendency to kick the bedding out of cages when they burrow which can be rather messy. They also sometimes chew on the wire which can result in sores on their noses.
A fairly thick ( 2 to 3-inch) layer of bedding is recommended to provide a good base and allow the gerbils to dig. Timothy hay and aspen shavings are good choices. Do not use pine or cedar shavings as the fumes from these products may be harmful to the gerbils. Be sure to change the bedding often enough to keep it dry and odor free, preferably once a week. Place the gerbils enclosure out of direct sunlight and away from drafts.
Provide the gerbils with a nest box to use for hiding and sleeping in. A sturdy wood ( untreated only) or ceramic nest box is preferred over plastic ones since the gerbils will quickly destroy the plastic ones by chewing. Clay flower pots are another possible choice.
Gerbils need lots of materials for climbing and enrichment such as thick pieces of untreated wood, stable rocks, ladders, ramps and platforms. Toys should also be provided that are safe for chewing. Do not use plastic toys or toys with small removable parts that could be ingested. Branches, wood and rope parrot toys and small cardboard boxes, toilet paper and paper towel tubes are all good choices.
A water bottle with a metal spout should be hung on the cage at a height the gerbils can reach but not touching the bedding. The water bottle should be cleaned regularly and filled with clean water daily. A heavy ceramic food bowl is the best choice for feeding because they are difficult to tip over.
A good commercial gerbil seed mix with a protein content of about 12 percent and a fat content of 6 to 8 percent is recommended for the gerbil’s diet. Gerbil mix is nutritionally complete and is made up of grains, pellets, dried vegetables and seeds. It is readily available at pet-supply stores. Small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables should be offered every day. Turnips, carrots, leaf lettuce and broccoli are good choices. Small amounts of sweet fruits such as bananas and apples may be offered as well. Be careful to introduce new foods gradually and clean up any leftover fresh food before it spoils. Do not give gerbils potatoes, cabbage, onions, uncooked beans, candy, chocolate or junk foods.
A gerbil’s teeth grow continuously, therefore, it is important that you provide your pet with either untreated wood blocks or a sterilized bone for chewing. This is vital for keeping their teeth in good condition and also to prevent dental problems.
Provide a heavy ceramic or glass dish with a couple of inches of chinchilla dust, (available at pet-supply stores), in it. Gerbils love rolling around and digging around in the dust and in the process they will get their fur cleaned and conditioned.
Never pick a gerbil up by it’s tail as this can cause injury to the gerbil. The best way to carry a gerbil is simply cupped in the palm of your hand. If necessary, you may gently hold the scruff of the neck (the loose skin on the back of the neck) to prevent the gerbil from getting away.
Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen which is used to mark items in their territory. If you notice your gerbils rubbing their stomachs on their cage furnishings, they are simply marking their territory.
If you think one of your gerbils is sick, seek medical attention immediately. Some common signs of illness in gerbils include: difficulty breathing, sneezing, diarrhea and lethargy. Gerbils are also susceptible to external parasites such as fleas and lice. If your pet is infected, you will need to treat the gerbil, his housing and surrounding environment.