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Gerbil Care

Intro, Buying, Supplies & Feeding

By Molly Kalafut


Introduction To Gerbils As Pets

Gerbils are one of the best types of pets - they are easy to care for, sociable, curious, clean and healthy. My parents first gave me a pair of gerbils at age 8, and I've been hooked on them ever since.

A variety of colors are available. The more common colors are usually agouti (brownish) and black. Other fairly common colors include golden/argente, white with red eyes, lilac and dove. Many of these occur with "spots" on the forehead, or a collar of white around the neck. Less common colors include nutmegs, colorpoints and Burmese colorations.

Gerbils tend to live between 2-4 years but may exceed that. From what I've experienced and reports of others, the more common colors may live a bit longer than the more rare and exotic colors.


Buying Gerbils

Gerbils are social by nature, so they are usually kept in pairs. If you don't want legions of gerbil babies, it is best to get either two male gerbils or two females. Same-sex pairs are very social and caring and will spend many hours grooming each other, building nests together, curling up together to sleep, squabble and squeak over treats and destroy many toys together.

Healthy Gerbil Signs

  • Curious and inquisitive
  • Bright clear eyes that open fully
  • Solid, stocky body
  • Well-furred
  • Dry undersides

Unhealthy Gerbil Signs

  • Anxious and biting
  • Wheezing sound from the chest when they breathe
  • Bleeding bites or scabs, particularly the tail
  • Patchy fur
  • Bleeding or sore nose
  • Runny, dull eyes
  • Underparts stained, caked or oozing with diarrhea

Many pet stores keep their gerbils separated by sex, but if you need to do it yourself there are some ways to visually tell the difference between males and females. The easiest way to look is gently lifting the gerbil's rump by the base of the tail to peek underneath. Depending on the color of the gerbil, the difference may be very obvious or more subtle. Normally males have evident black testicles - if you're lucky they're slightly lumpy and visible from the back without having to lift them. The female generally is more pink where the males are black. If you're really having difficulty telling the difference between males and females you can just make sure the two you are buying look the same underneath.


Supplies

A new owner to gerbils needs the following supplies:

  • Cage
  • Mesh Cage Lid
  • Water Bottle (preferably with chew-proof holder)
  • Food Dish (ceramic, metal, heavy plastic)
  • Gerbil Food (most pet stores sell a gerbil mix)
  • Cage bedding
  • Nest Fluff
  • Exercise Wheel (6-8")
  • Chewing Toys
  • Hiding Places
  • Exercise Balls (optional)

Cages - There are several options for cages but I personally prefer tanks/aquariums. The best part about aquariums is that they are difficult for gerbils to chew through, dig their way out of or make messes with cage bedding. Wire cages are an option, but the gerbils can make a mess of your room by kicking cage bedding through the wires, and there is a distinct possibility they could chew through it. The cages with metal mesh floors with a tray pan that slides out are nice for cleaning, but sad for the gerbils because they don't get to chew much. CritterTrail and Habitrail make very attractive looking cages with neat zoomy tubes and ladders and tunnels and rooms...but they are expensive and can be chewed through. A 10 gallon aquarium tank usually costs about $10, compared to the $30+ of CritterTrail tube cages.

Cage Lids - Cage lids are important because gerbils can jump surprisingly high. A book I read about gerbils once featured a photo of gerbils leaping out of a tall garbage can. Some mesh lids are flat and are lifted off the top of the lid, but I personally recommend the mesh lids that fold down the middle. It flips conveniently open on either side and you don't have to hold the lid up with one hand while gerbil-wrangling with the other.

Water Bottles - Bottles are essential, because a water dish is a disaster for gerbils. The gerbils immediately bury water dishes by kicking bedding on top of them. Soaking, water-logged bedding poses a health risk, encourage bacterial growth and isn't fun for the poor gerbils to try to drink. So a water bottle is a much better choice. Most owners do just fine with any water bottle that has a tight seal. Most people use the kind with a small metal ball at the tip of the opening. As gerbils can and will chew anything they can get their paws on, I recommend the metal water holders that protect the first few inches of the plastic bottle.

Food Dish - In a strict sense a food dish isn't totally necessary. You could just scatter the food in a corner, since the gerbils often just kick the food out of the food dish anyway. But a food dish can sometimes help you judge whether your gerbils need more food or not. Each tank of gerbils usually develops their own food dish personality - some bury the entire dish & food with cage bedding while others will completely empty the dish, and some will make it their mission to chew the dish to pieces while others will leave the food dish completely un-chewed. A ceramic bowl is often a good but slightly more expensive choice because it is difficult for them to tip it over. Or you can buy plastic dishes and just resign yourself to having to replace them every year or so depending on how chewed they get. At $1-$4 it isn't usually too much of an investment.

Gerbil Food - Most pet stores sell dry food mixes either specifically for gerbils, or as a gerbil and hamster mix. The gerbils will usually do fine with any of those commercially available mixes. If you like, you can buy a bag of the regular food and a bag of fancy food and mix the two together. The gerbils will usually prefer the sunflowers and peanuts in their food, so you need to make sure the gerbils also eat the healthy boring pellets before giving them more food. If the gerbils had it their way you'd just fill them up with sunflower seeds and nuts all day long, but that's not healthy for them! If you ever find that a particular gerbil is getting too pudgy, a good way to help control their diet is to fish the sunflower seeds out of the food mixes.

Cage Bedding - The best (and worst) cage beddings for small pets is usually hotly debated by pet owners. Many people like cedar and pine because the volatile oils help control odor well, but many worry those oils can also cause respiratory illness in small animals. For that reason some prefer aspen which doesn't have oils, but others worry that aspen shavings are too dusty and don't control odor well. Corn-cob is also recommended by some, but others contend corn-cob encourages the growth of bacteria. Recent favorites that have emerged include paper-based alternatives such as regular gray CareFresh or white Ultra CareFresh. Cell-Sorb is another good alternative. My personal choice is Cell-Sorb mixed with Ultra CareFresh.

Bedding Fluff - Gerbils like to take soft, fluffy materials and fashion them into large nests. These nests are typically where they curl up to sleep and if possible they often make multi-chambered tunnels and areas within them. Pet stores sell horribly over-priced bedding fluff, but I suggest home alternatives instead. Some gerbils will use strips of toilet paper or paper towels, others like cotton, and many gerbils enjoy chewing up strips of burlap. Some gerbils never get the hang of burlap and only partially fluff it, but some gerbils love to make insanely fluffy shredded burlap nests. Some people worry that gerbils may suffer health problems from accidentally ingesting cotton or have accidents with fibers wrapping around their limbs, but I've never seen a problem from those things...I imagine the any risk involved is low.

Exercise Wheel - Many gerbils love their exercise wheel and will run in it throughout the day or night.  Each gerbil usually expresses their own personality when it comes to toys...you'll notice the "runners" use the wheel significantly more than the "chewers". The exercise wheel size is best between 6-8". Many people warn against using the metal horizontal bar wheels, citing concerns about tails or feet being caught and broken in it. But honestly, I think the risk of that is minimal since in 15+ years and hundreds of gerbils I've never seen any accident from that kind of wheel. Another type of wheel I like are the metal mesh types, where the wheel surface looks like tiny little squares. I've heard good things about the Wodent Wheel but I haven't personally tried them. Solid metal, wood or plastic wheels are other alternatives. I prefer metal over wood or plastic because while the gerbils will indeed try to chew the metal, it's not as easy for them to destroy. If you are worried about the safety surface of your wheel there are plastic or wooden type inserts you can buy to line the inside. Some specialty inserts help wear and file down their claws while they run which may be a good option for gerbils with scratchy claws but I recommend keeping a close eye on their feet to make sure the claws aren't worn down too far. The National Gerbil Society recommends covering the wheels with duct tape, but as a warning that may need to be repeated frequently due to inevitable chew-damage. A heavy wheel is usually a good idea otherwise the gerbils knock it over easily. Luckily for me, my father makes wonderful wheels for us that solder the wheel to a heavy wooden base with strips of metal. The gerbils can't knock it over and the materials are hard enough that they can't chew it easily (though they try!).

Chewing Toys - The first thing to understand about gerbils is that everything is a chew toy. If you don't distract them with enough cardboard to chew, they will attempt to chew everything else they can get their teeth on. This includes water bottles, exercise wheels, food dishes, your sweater, your wedding ring and even sheets of metal are considered fair game for their teeth. Their favorite chew toys are anything expensive that you buy and hope they won't chew through. It is actually necessary for them to chew because their incisor teeth grow continually so they have to wear them down. To slow down their progress on destroying everything you've purchased for them, your best hope is to give them an endless stream of cheap, household cardboard and stiff paper. Anything and everything paper/cardboard-like can be their new favorite toy - our staples include toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, brown paper bags, empty cereal boxes, cardboard boxes and if you're really desperate to entertain them you can use paper plates. Toilet and paper rolls can usually be given as-is, but I recommend for boxes or oddly shaped cardboard that you tear it up into several smaller pieces so the gerbils can easily move it around with their paws and teeth. I recommend household cheaper cardboard rather than fancy expensive pet store chew toys because household items are cheaper, easier to replace and it's not much of a loss if you accidentally throw them out while cleaning cages.

Hiding Places - Most hiding place toys that you purchase from pet stores eventually become chew toys. But in the meantime, the gerbils can enjoy hiding in and climbing on top of half-logs, house-like structures, roll-a-nests, ladders and slides. Buying ceramic or heavy wood is usually cheaper and healthier in the long run. Plastic products are destroyed too quickly and you don't want them swallowing bits of plastic accidentally.

Exercise Ball - Some gerbils seem to enjoy the clear run-around balls sold at the pet stores. There are some varieties of the ball, like the "racecar" that is stationary except for the running part. For both types, close the lid firmly and watch to see if the gerbil get the hang of running around, and then keep an eye out for when they stop running and just sit there grooming themselves. That's a good sign that they're ready to go back in the cage. Some owners take an extra precaution of taping the lid onto the ball just in case the gerbil figures out how to screw it off. Occasionally, gerbils that previously indicated they don't like the exercise balls seem to get in a certain rambunctious mood and then they might enjoy the ball. Generally we give gerbils a turn in the ball if they repeatedly jump to the top of the tank to get our attention, and don't settle down after we've given them treats, chewing toys, food, and un-dug their exercise wheel. If we do all that and they are still leaping to the ceiling of their 


Cleaning & Feeding

Gerbils are generally easy compared to many pets. It's easy to keep them happy and healthy, there are affordable commercial food mixes widely available, they are generally hardy until late in life and most vets know how to care for them.

Cage Cleaning - Gerbils are desert creatures, so they have dense, compact, odorless solid waste and minimal liquid waste. While mice need cage changes several times a week, gerbils only need cage cleanings every 1-3 weeks. To space out cleanings, you can usually remove a few handfulls of bedding to throw away and toss in a few fresh handfulls. It is not hard to figure out when the cage needs changing - it will either smell dirty or look dirty. When cleaning, you can usually just wipe out the inside of the cage with paper towels or occasionally give a thorough cleaning with warm water and mild soap. You can fill the tank with a thin or thick layer of cage bedding litter. The thicker the layer the more they can dig, but you typically need to balance that with a reasonable level so the exercise wheel can still function. Also, if you have super-chewer gerbils the amount of bedding may add up due to the leftover chewed scrap bits. I've had one tank of gerbils that needed emptying about once per week because they filled their cage with shredded cardboard so fast that they would partially bury their wheel.

Feeding - There are commercial gerbil mixes from the pet stores, pellets, and lab blocks...or a mix of all three. I don't keep many gerbils so I usually choose a gerbil seed mix from the store, but that can get expensive if someone has a lot of gerbils to feed. To enhance the protein content you can mix in a few handfulls of dry high-quality cat food. I prefer Eukanuba chicken&rice or Eukanuba lamb&rice. You can also supplement their diets with fresh veggies (carrots often go over well) but be careful to remove them quickly or else they get buried and can spoil. Also avoid giving them foods that are too moist, which can cause diarrhea for some gerbils. Insects like meal worms and crickets can be offered to them to boost their protein, but it makes some people uneasy if the gerbils bury the insects instead of eating them right away. Some people give crickets to their gerbils but mine have difficulties catching them and it becomes too troublesome for me to try to keep them from jumping out of the cage. When evaluating commercial gerbil food mixes, pay close attention to the nutritional analysis and percentages of protein & fat. Some of more expensive "fancy" mixes have the same nutritional content as the cheaper versions...they just include brightly colored food bits to make it look more varied, when it's really all the same food or not particularly nutritious anyway. Those types of food are designed to look appealing to the people buying it - it's not necessarily better for the gerbil.

Type of Gerbil Protein Fat
Adult (10 weeks to 2 years) 12% 6-8%
Elderly (2 years+) 10-11% 3-5%
Breeder (10 weeks-2.5ish years) 15-16% 7-9%
Percentages from the National Gerbil Society

Make sure your gerbils receive enough fat to keep their coats shiny and healthy but not so much they develop obesity or infertility. Gerbils usually stay a healthy weight all by themselves, but if you notice some gerbils getting too pudgy I recommend picking the sunflower seeds out of their normal food and just reserving them for special occasions. Their health also varies depending on how active they are with their exercise wheel or run-around balls. Breeding gerbils need special attention for their diet and will be discussed in the breeding section.

For frequency of feeding, they usually need food only once every 2 or 3 days. Dig around in their food dish to see if they've emptied it, and stir around the food corner bedding with your finger to see if they buried a stash of food. If both are empty it's a good time to fill up the food dish. It seems to be about 1 TBSP food per adult gerbil per day or two. If you're leaving on vacation for a long weekend, you can leave them a hard "treat stick" of food that many pet stores sell. (As a warning, be sure to dig it out of the cage before cleaning the cage or else you can throw it out accidentally.)

Providing mineral blocks or vitamin supplements are a choice made by each gerbil owner or breeder. I do not personally use them. If you feed your gerbils a varied and nutritionally rich diet then vitamin and mineral supplements should not be necessary. On the other hand, some owners like to add extra vitamins just in case. The choice of vitamins are usually two kinds; one is added to their drinking water and the other is a powder added to their dry food. If you choose to use vitamin supplements, pay close attention to the descriptions of the quantities and amounts to feed so you don't over-vitamin their diet. If you are concerned about your gerbil's vitamin levels check with your vet!

Watering - Water is very important to gerbils and they need to have a water bottle available at all times. While they are desert animals so they conserve water rather well, it is not healthy for them to go long without water. If deprived of water, a lactating mother will kill and eat her pups to keep enough moisture in her system to maintain lactation. The best way to make sure they have water is to check their water level when you feed them. Occasionally water bottles can leak or get stopped up so it's important to keep an eye on their water. Luckily, before the gerbils get to the extreme of killing their pups, you will probably notice thirsty gerbils licking at the sides of the glass in their tanks. That's a good sign that you should double-check their water bottle.

The National Gerbil Society recommends occasionally adding iodine to their water:

"Adding iodine in small amounts to water can increase resistance to disease, improve fertility, improve the health of embryos, and help prevent fungus from growing in the water bottle. The maximum dosage is two or three drops per gallon of water from a 5-7% solution of iodine. Be aware that iodine will decrease the potency of vitamins, so you will need to either rotate vitamin and iodine water or use powdered vitamins mixed into the food."


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Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut