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Bonding With Gerbils

Treat Tricks & Tips

By Molly & Gerry


Training gerbils to eat in your hand is very rewarding. Gerbils eating in your hand is a tangible sign that they trust you and don't feel vulnerable. Another benefit is that gerbils hoping for treats will poke their heads out of their nest or come running to your hands when you open the cage, instead of running to hide.

Whenever we have baby or new gerbils in the house, my husband and I patiently work with them every day to get them comfortable with eating treats out of our hands. Visitors who had gerbils as children have been amazed that some of our sweetest gerbils will stay still and eat in the hands of strangers! These are some of the techniques we use.

Obviously, don't use all these techniques at once! Make sure your gerbils only get a small number of treats per day to keep them in good health. Hint: If you want to give them treats more often, you can pick the high-fat sunflowers and peanuts out of their regular food to deliver them by hand instead.

Sections:

bullet Building Trust
bullet Treat Tricks & Tips
bullet Beginners
bullet Advanced

Gradual Steps - Building Trust

There are generally many steps in getting a gerbil comfortable with taking a treat from your fingers and eating it while sitting in your hand. Sometimes you can skip over a few steps or they are reversed, but you generally need to get them comfortable at the lower numbers before progressing to higher numbers.

  1. (Least Comfortable) They hide from your hand and won't take a treat even if you put it in front of them.

  2. They hide from your hand but will take a treat if you put it in front of their mouth.

  3. They hide initially, but then cautiously move towards your hand, snatch a treat nervously and run off with it.

  4. They come towards your hand more confidently and curiously.

  5. (Halfway There!) They stand on your hand while eating a treat.

  6. They stand on your hand and eat the treat even if you then lift your hand out of the cage.

  7. While sitting in your hand, they will pick a treat up off your flat palm and store it in their mouths until you put them down.

  8. While sitting in your hand, they will pick a treat up off your flat palm and eat it. (Yay!)

  9. While sitting in your hand, they will accept a treat from your fingers and store it in their mouths until you put them down.

  10. (Most Comfortable) While sitting in your hand, they will accept a treat from your fingers and eat it while sitting in your hands.

Sometimes there are frustrating backslides, when a gerbil that used to take treats from your fingers suddenly will only take them from you while in their cage. Gently re-establishing the level of trust make take some time but usually goes faster once the second (or third) time around.

Hint: Be Patient! If you get frustrated and try to force your gerbil they will likely go backwards in steps, not forwards!


Treat Tricks & Tips

These are some of our favorite ways to convince gerbils to become comfortable with you and even look forward to coming out of their cage to play with you.

Use Treats Not In Their Normal Food

While many people use sunflower seeds or peanuts as treats, generally we use almonds, pecans, or walnuts instead. Those nuts don't come in commercial gerbil food, so the gerbils learn to recognize they can only get them from us and will often climb onto our hands to greedily snatch at them when they have the chance.

One of our favorite gerbils (we called her "Colorpoint") was very demanding for almonds. Since she couldn't get them in her regular food, when she decided she wanted an almond she would stand in her cage and leap towards the ceiling until we took her out and gave her a treat. Sometimes as soon as we put her back in, she started again! She got hilariously exasperated when I tried giving her tank treats that weren't almonds. Once I put my hand in with cereal bran flakes, and she got very indignant that I didn't have any almonds for her! First she nosed through the cereal looking for the almonds, then got more upset, climbed into my hand and started kicking all the cereal off my hand onto the ground. She started chewing on my wedding ring and then even nibbled my fingers! Finally, I gave her an almond to calm her down, which gave the others a chance to get their cereal.

2 Gerbils 2 Treats

Sometimes young gerbils need to learn that it's okay to eat in your hand. If a baby is still timid about it, it can help to hold both the parent (or an older sibling or cagemate) and baby in your hand and give the parent a treat. When the baby sees the parent, sibling or cagemate calmly eating they will often take a treat themselves. It may be that they're more comfortable because the parent is there, or they just want to make sure they don't miss out on any treats!

Hand Vs. Fingers

Sometimes gerbils in your hand that won't take treats from your fingers will stop and take a treat if you put the treat down on your hand. Better yet, put two tiny treats on your hand and they may be more likely to stop and pick one up.

The treat-in-hand is also a good way for baby gerbils to learn that they can safely eat in your hand, and will often take treats from your fingers only after a few days or weeks of picking up treats off your hand.

Two Treats

If your gerbil refuses at first to take a treat, place a second treat in your hand nearby. The evidence of two treats may be too much for your gerbil to resist, and they will snatch and eat one.

Sometimes a gerbil will take 1 treat, but store it in his mouth and not eat it. Holding a second treat in front of their nose often encourages them to eat the one in their mouth so they can try to snatch the second treat.

Snap Treat In Half

One way to encourage a gerbil that isn't taking a treat is to snap the treat (usually a nut) in half, and present the newly-made edge to their nose. I think it probably smells fresher and makes it more tempting for the gerbil.

"Hey, Where's My Treat?"

Harness the power of sibling rivalry! One very effective technique with some gerbils that are fussy about taking treats in your hand is to first take their cagemate out and give him or her a treat, especially a crunchy one. Let the cagemate eat in your hand while you stand near the cage. If the other fussy gerbil hears their cagemate eating, they might start stretching up towards you to demand a treat for themselves. If you put the cagemate down in the cage while he or she is still eating their treat, the fussy gerbil generally investigates and wants to squabble for what's left of the treat - that's a good time to scoop him up and offer him a treat.

Try A Different Treat Type

Gerbils often develop their own favorites. Some may ignore walnuts, but go "nuts" for almonds...or vice versa. If a gerbil seems to ignore a treat repeatedly, try a different kind until you find their favorite. One test is to provide a small pile of treats on your hand and see if the gerbil consistently rummages through them to pick the same kind of treat repeatedly. Be sure to watch the process for distinct signs of rummaging and not "picking up the first treat they see".

What's Your Favorite Trick or Technique?

If you have a way to coax gerbils to eat in your hand in a way not mentioned here, send email!


Beginners

Training Gerbil Babies To Take Treats

Baby gerbils need to be coaxed into eating out of your hand. If you work at it once or twice a day, I've found it usually takes a week or two to get babies running towards your hand. This is beneficial because the babies learn to be calm and playful with you, and instead of running away when they hear the cage open will often run out of the nest to look for you.

As soon as the babies' eyes open, let them learn your hand is the source of food. Instead of dumping their food into the food dish, put your hand stretched out on the floor of their cage with the food inside - usually the parents will climb on and grab their favorites, and the babies eventually investigate and learn they can climb on your hand for food.

Initially, put a bunch of treats on your hand and stretch it flat and still on the floor of their cage. Generally the parents will run right towards you and sit there eating treat after treat, but the good news is the more adventurous babies will start investigating your hand and figure out the treats taste good, then eventually the more timid babies come out to see what's going on. The downside to this is the parents might eat a bunch more treats than they usually do...but I figure they deserve a small reward for all their tiring and busy parenting! Doing this once a day or every other day works well.

Aft first, babies usually cautiously climb onto your hand, grab a treat then jump off the hand. But after a while they get more accustomed to you and may stay on your hand while eating. At this point, you can try gently picking your hand up and cradling the gerbil. Some get timid and drop the treat, but others keep the treat in their mouth and if you held still may resume eating.

As the babies get older, when playing with them individually I've found the easiest way to get them eating in your hand is to scatter treats on your hands while playing (rather than trying to hand them to them with your fingers). As they investigate your hands, they may stop and pick up a treat. This works especially well if you've already introduced them to treats on your hand while in the cage.

Warning: Adolescents often reach a nippy stage where they now think your whole hand is food, and start nibbling your fingers. It's usually not hard enough to hurt, and after they figure out you're not edible as they grow into adults they won't be likely to nibble you. Hint: They can be confused by your thumbnail or fingernail because it is hard like their treats, so angle your fingertips away from the gerbils if they look like they're about to start chewing on your nails.


Advanced

Having Fun With Your Gerbils & Their Treats

So now your gerbils have learned they love the treats that come from your fingers. Now what?

Depending on how much they want the treat and how crazed they become at the sight or smell of the treat, some very tame gerbils will do some very strange things. These are usually best to do with adults, as babies may get confused and frustrated.

bullet Coax Them To Flip Over Backwards - While in the cage, hold the treat in front of them so they smell and start reaching towards the treat or following it. While keeping it just out of reach, bring the treat over their heads towards their back. While some smart gerbils will swivel around, others that are too transfixed will actually tip over backwards to try to catch the treat!
bullet See Them Tip Forward - Sometimes a gerbil will be so excited about their treat they will eat in the silliest, most off-balance position because they eat immediately after grabbing the treat. One particularly funny thing to do is if they lean over your fingers to grab their treat and eat leaning on your fingers...slowly move your fingers and watch them try to balance themselves without stopping their munching! (Of course be careful that they don't hurt themselves!)
bullet Convince Them To Run A Marathon Towards The Treat - Sometimes if a gerbil is standing inside his wheel, if you hold the treat outside the wheel just in front of his nose, he will start running in the wheel towards it...and of course not get anywhere! Some gerbils get smart quickly and jump out of the wheel, but others will keep earnestly running and running and running towards it! It's certainly cute. (If you want to be extra naughty, move the treat closer to them when they stop running then further away when they start running again.)
bullet Watch Their Gerbie IQ Drop Dramatically - Sometimes treats can appear to paralyze the brain of even your smartest gerbil. For example, you've seen your gerbils climb up onto a wooden block a million time. But, if the gerbil is on the floor of the cage and you hold the treat over the block and over their head - often they will go nuts trying to reach towards the treat with their paws and mouths instead of climbing onto the block and grabbing it.
bullet Make Them Earn Their Treat - Say you have two tanks of gerbils. You can make up rules to any game you want and then reward whichever performs best or first. For example, sometimes I give each tank a toilet paper roll, and the first tank to chew it up to pieces gets a treat! Or set a time limit for one tank of gerbils - if they chew the toilet paper roll completely up with 15 minutes they get a treat. Sure, they don't know they're being rewarded - but hey, it's fun for you anyway!

Of course, be sure to reward your gerbil for putting up with any of the above indignities!

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