Owning a Pet Gerbil

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Gerbils are commonly kept as family pets. They are members of the order Rodentia. Gerbils come in many colors, including natural buff, black, white, grey, and spotted. If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they can be wonderful pets.

These animals are friendly, curious, active, and very agile. Gerbils are great jumpers and tend to scurry and scamper about, making them a challenge to hold. For that reason, children should be older than 10 years of age before getting a pet gerbil, as children younger than this will have difficulty restraining them.

Gerbils generally make good family pets but should never be left unsupervised with small children. Gerbils are nocturnal but can be active for periods during the day. They will run on exercise wheels relentlessly at night, so they are not ideal pets for light sleepers.

Gerbils do not shed a lot and generally cause few allergic reactions in people. They are hardy, clean animals that are reasonably easy to care for. Their life expectancy is 2 to 3 years. Children should be informed of this when they get a gerbil, so that the “sudden death” of their pet does not come unexpectedly. Gerbils make good family pets and are suitable as a first pet for older children with supervision.

Gerbil Care Facts

Gerbils love to chew paper, cardboard, boxes, paper tubes, etc. They are agile climbers, great jumpers, and entertaining burrowers. They are hardy, disease-resistant animals but can develop tumors as they age. The incisors (front teeth) of all rodents grow continuously throughout their lives. The upper incisors are shorter than the lower incisors (about a 1:3 ratio). The molars do not grow continuously. Both males and females have a short-haired, oval scent gland near the belly button.

"Gerbils are prone to obesity when fed a seed-based diet."

In the wild, gerbils live in the arid regions of Africa, Asia, and India. Because they are desert animals, they do not drink or urinate a great deal, so they tend to produce less odor in their cages than many other rodents. They fulfill most of their water requirements by eating fruits and vegetables, but they should always have access to fresh, clean water. Gerbils should never be fed a strict seed diet, as seed is high in fat and poor in nutrition. Gerbils are prone to obesity when fed a seed-based diet. Instead, they should be offered a pelleted diet made for gerbils, supplemented with small amounts of freshly washed or frozen vegetables and limited amounts of fruit.

When they are excited or frightened, gerbils will thump their back feet – a behavior called foot-drumming. They also foot-drum as a form of communication. While gerbils are social in the wild and live in family groups, pet gerbils can be territorial and often do not like the introduction of new gerbils to their territory. In fact, male gerbils housed together will often fight and may cannibalize each other. It is generally recommended that gerbils, especially males, be housed singly.

Selecting Your Pet

Gerbils can often be adopted from shelters, purchased at pet stores, or bought from a breeder. Their eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection. A gerbil that is sneezing may have a respiratory infection. In stressful situations or overcrowding, gerbils may emit an excess of porphyrin (a chemical produced by the Harderian glands around the face). This chemical may cause skin irritation and hair loss, called nasal dermatitis.

The gerbil should be active, curious, and inquisitive. An animal sitting quietly in the corner may be sick. Gerbils also should not be thin. Moisture around the anus might indicate diarrhea. If possible, examine the gerbil's mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth), discolored gums (they should be light pink), and any obvious sores. Finally, ask the shelter or seller about any guarantee of health.

Veterinary Care

Your pet gerbil should be examined within 48–72 hours of purchase by a veterinarian familiar with gerbils. Often, this examination is required by the seller or shelter, otherwise any health guarantee is voided. Make sure your veterinarian has experience in treating gerbils. Your veterinarian will examine your gerbil, record its weight, and discuss housing, proper diet, and appropriate toys. A fecal sample should also be examined for parasites. Gerbils require at least annual physical examinations and fecal tests to check for parasites. Neutering also can be discussed with the veterinarian. Gerbils do not require vaccines, but they should have annual examinations. Older gerbils should be checked by a veterinarian twice a year.

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