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Gerbil Care

Gerbil fans say that gerbils make good pets due to their temperament, and ease of care.  They tend to be easily tamed and are not as skittish as some other small rodents.  They also aren't as inclined to bite unless threatened (as always there are exceptions).  Coming from a dry natural habitat they are designed to conserve water, so produce scant urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.  They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in  colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.  Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred.  If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they are quite territorial.

Housing: A pair of gerbils doesn't require a lot of space, a 15-20 gallon aquarium is sufficient. However, for such curious and active creatures a larger cage is nice and allows more creativity with furnishings and toys. If an aquarium is used, a lid is necessary because gerbils can jump very well. A wire cage with fairly narrow wire spacing will also work well. Plastic cages do not hold up very well to the gerbils' chewing habits. A wheel should be provided for exercise, a hamster wheel is fine but the wheel should be modified or wrapped with masking tape to provide a solid surface.  Do not use duct tape, the fibers in duct tape can kill a gerbil if ingested! You need to use a tape without fibers like masking tape. The open rungs on the open slats of a typical hamster wheel can catch the gerbils tail and cause injury.  Gerbils will also explore and enjoy a variety of toys, such as empty toilet paper rolls, small boxes, and nests.  Keep in mind the gerbil will chew everything you put in its cage so make sure toys are non toxic and not harmful if accidentally ingested.

Handling: Generally, frequent handling will keep a gerbil quite tame.  If all else fails, bribery with sunflower seeds can help make a gerbil more amenable to handling.  It is important to note that they will be difficult to catch if they get out of their cage or away from being handled, and food can help in this situation too. Here are some hints on picking up gerbils:

  • Never pick up a gerbil by the tail.
  • The best way is to carry gerbil is simply cupped in the palm of the hand.  You can gently hold the scruff of the neck (hold the loose skin on the back of the neck) to prevent the gerbil from getting away if necessary.  If absolutely necessary, you can hold a gerbil firmly by first grabbing hold of the scruff of the neck, and then holding the base of the tail with the other hand (cradling the gerbil's back in the palm of the hand holding the neck).  You must hold only the very base of the tail, as close to the body as possible, and not too tightly.
  • If you are not comfortable picking up an untamed gerbil as above, then allow the gerbil to walk into a cup or can turned on its side, and then tip the cup up to carry the gerbil.  Place a hand over the cup as gerbils can jump surprisingly well.  You can also use a cardboard tube (e.g. from a paper towel roll) for this purpose.

Taming a gerbil requires some patience to gain its trust, but it will make handling your gerbils much easier and rewarding. Here are some steps to follow:

  • Give new gerbils a few days to adjust to their new home (keep maintenance and interaction to a minimum).
  • Move slowly and speak softly around the gerbils
  • Limit interaction to times when the gerbil is awake - waking a gerbil isn't a good way to gain its trust!
  • Initially just sit next to cage to acclimate gerbils to your presence.
  • Offer a treat (sunflower or pumpkin seeds) when the gerbil approaches the cage bars.
  • Once the gerbil(s) take treats from your hand through the bars of the cage, offer treat through open cage door.
  • Once taking treats this way, place treat on open hand to entice a gerbil to step up onto hand to retrieve treat.
  • Place treat on forearm and allow gerbil to climb onto your hand.
  • When your gerbils are comfortable with your hand, try gently scratching the sides and back of their heads (imitating natural grooming behavior of gerbils).

Avoid chasing or grabbing the gerbils to get them back into their cage if they have been out. Try to entice the gerbils back with favorite treats, or try to gently herd them back to the cage. Handle your gerbils regularly to keep them well socialized.  Gerbils are active and curious and will appreciate daily time outside the cage.