History and Biology

In the wild, Mongolian gerbils and their relatives, the jirds, live in the desert and sandy grasslands of Africa and Central Asia, where there is little vegetation, low rainfall and temperatures that fluctuate enormously between summer and winter, and day and night.  The survival of gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus) is down to their burrowing instincts.  Burrowing allows them to protect themselves from the extremes in temperature, as, under the soil, temperatures remain constant.  In the wild, gerbil burrows are a complex network of tunnels, with nests and food storage chambers which allow the gerbil to stay underground for long periods of time.

The gerbil species has evolved to need only limited food and water.  Their long hind legs allow them to cover large distances in a harsh habitat in order to collect food.  In addition, their bodies require little water as they do not sweat and they reabsorb their liquid intake producing highly concentrated urine and dry faeces.

The Golden Agouti is the most common gerbil found in pet shops and is a sandy colour with a dark stripe down the spine and tail.  Other varieties include Albino, Black, Cinnamon, White Spot, Dark Tailed White, Dove and Argente (silvery sheen).

The average life expectancy of a gerbil is from three to five years and the average adult body weight is 70-120grams.


Gerbils naturally live in groups or large colonies and are very sociable animals, so should not be kept alone.  However, as they breed from three months old and can produce a litter of four to ten babies every twenty four days.  It is best to keep only same sex pairs or small groups of the same sex.  This is important for mutual grooming behaviour.  Two or more baby gerbils of the same sex from the same litter should get on well together.  They may accept a gerbil from a different litter, but they may fight. However, adult gerbils (or any gerbil over ten weeks of age when they become sexually mature) can be aggressive towards gerbils that are strangers.  Remember, if housing more than one pair of same sex gerbils, it is important to ensure that the tank is large enough to comfortably accommodate all of the gerbils.

In the wild, gerbils forage for food and live in underground tunnels up to three metres long, with several entries and chambers.  The best way to mimic this, and therefore keep them happy, is to house them in a large, spacious tank or a large, old aquarium with a wire lid (for ventilation) and plenty of material for them to dig and tunnel into.  Wire cages are unsuitable because the bedding will be kicked out of the cage through the wire bars when the gerbils are digging and they will be unable to burrow in them. A wooden hutch is not suitable, as they will gnaw their way out.

A pair of gerbils need a tank with a minimum floor surface of 40cms by 75cms.  It needs to be at least 30cms high because they are such good jumpers.  Gerbils will also appreciate a nest box, but not wooden or plastic, which will be chewed. Ceramic flowerpots make good sleeping areas and areas to hide in.  Place the tank indoors and away from cold draughts, direct sunlight and radiators (to prevent overheating).  Humidity should be kept low (below 30%), or the coat will become roughened and starey.  The temperature in the room should be constant and the tank should be out of reach of any other pets.

A deep (5cm) layer of bedding material that they can dig into should be used, such as sawdust, wood shavings or a mixture of peat and good quality hay.  Sand should be avoided as it may lead to abrasions on the nose during burrowing.  A separate sand bath of chinchilla sand should be provided to help maintain the gerbil’s coat and remove excess oils.  Nesting material, for example, shredded paper, should be provided.  Do not use synthetic or fluffy bedding material as this may cause intestinal blockages if eaten or may wrap around the legs and injure them.

Like other rodents, gerbils have upper incisor teeth that carry on growing throughout their lives.  They keep them at the right length by gnawing on things so wood and cardboard items should be provided for chewing, such as fruit tree (apple) branches, wooden cotton reels, cardboard tubes (toilet rolls) or egg boxes.  These objects will also provide an opportunity for gerbils to play, as they are naturally very active and inquisitive animals; gerbils like to keep themselves busy and will spend the majority of their time running around and investigating their surroundings.  Piles of twigs (natural wood – willow, beech, hazel or apple) also make platforms for them to explore or rest under.  Exercise wheels are not suitable, in case their delicate tails become trapped.

Since gerbils originate from the desert and dry grassland areas, they produce little urine and waste, so it is fairly easy to keep their environment clean and free from smells.  Cages or tanks need to be cleaned on a regular basis.   Any uneaten food must be removed daily or it may rot.


In their natural habitat they store food over winter in burrows and feed on a selection of coarse grasses, roots and seeds.  Gerbils need a small amount of protein in their diet to keep them healthy and in the wild they would satisfy this need by eating grubs and insects. 

In captivity gerbils may be fed daily on commercial rodent mixes (one tablespoon per day) with added fresh fruit and vegetables, such as apple, carrot, broccoli, sprouts and cauliflower.  Fresh green food is essential for good health.  Do not feed potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves, as these are poisonous.  Hay may also be provided.  For occasional treats, raisins, melon seeds and the occasional sunflower seed may be given. 

Gerbils should have limited access to sunflower seeds because the seeds are high in cholesterol and low in protein, vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium and gerbils will often selectively eat sunflower seeds to the exclusion of other foods.  This may then lead to obesity, reduced growth and nutritional diseases. 

By hiding food and the occasional treat in different areas of the tank, it will keep the gerbils occupied for many hours foraging and help to prevent boredom.

A good quality, heavy, earthenware food bowl is essential to keep the food dry and clean, and prevent the gerbil from tipping the food onto the floor of the cage.  Feeding bowls must be cleaned after every use.

Fresh drinking water should be available at all times and changed daily.  It should be provided via a water bottle fixed inside the tank, which should be cleaned regularly.

Handling and Behaviour

Gerbils rarely bite, except when unused to handling.  Do not disturb sleeping animals. Foot stomping is a normal communicative behaviour in gerbils and is used as an alarm call.

Gerbils are usually friendly and happy to be handled, although some can be timid.  Start by placing your hand in the tank so the gerbils can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them.  Pick up a gerbil by placing your hand around its body, just behind the front legs, and support the hindquarters in your other hand.  Never handle a gerbil by the end of its tail, as gerbils can shed the skin to escape, exposing the underlying bone.  Children should only handle gerbils under adult supervision in case they inadvertently squeeze too hard.

Common Diseases and Ailments

Dental problems – as all rodents, gerbils’ teeth continue to grow throughout their life.  Gerbils require fibre in their diet and gnawing ensures their teeth are evenly worn, preventing overgrowth.  Overgrown teeth can cause a number of problems including abscesses and inability to eat.  Ensure that gerbils are fed the correct diet and contact your veterinary surgery if you think your gerbil may have teeth problems.

Diarrhoea – overfeeding with green food is a common cause of diarrhoea. You should stop feeding green food immediately if your gerbil has diarrhoea; allow it only to eat its gerbil mix.  Diarrhoea can be caused by dietary problems, bacterial or parasitic infections.  You may notice that the affected gerbil has a starey coat and a hunched posture, as well as diarrhoea.  If your gerbil has diarrhoea, take it to your veterinary surgery immediately, as loss of fluid through diarrhoea can be life threatening.

Respiratory disease – if your gerbil has a respiratory infection, it may have a runny nose, sneeze, experience breathing difficulties, have a loss of appetite and weight loss.   Isolate the affected gerbil from the rest of the group as respiratory problems can quickly spread through colonies and take the gerbil to the veterinary surgery.

Tyzzers disease - this is a very serious bacterial condition and your gerbil will have diarrhoea, look tired and weak and will lose his appetite.  Take him to the vet immediately if your gerbil has any of these symptoms, as this disease is often fatal.  Other symptoms may be weight loss, incoordination or a head tilt.  Factors that may predispose the gerbil to this disease include poor hygiene, overcrowding and concurrent illness. Good hygiene in the tank and using good quality bedding and burrowing material will help prevent this disease.

Epilepsy – spontaneous epileptic seizures are common in certain genetic lines of gerbil.  It is thought this behaviour may have developed as a survival mechanism to deter predators. Seizures may occur in gerbils from two to three months of age and may become more severe up to six months of age.  They are usually stimulated by a change in environment or handling.  If gerbils are handled frequently within the first three weeks of life, epilepsy may be less likely to develop.  Contact your veterinary surgery for further information about epileptic seizures in gerbils.

Head tilt – this can be commonly seen in ageing gerbils and may be associated with a bacterial infection, lumps forming in the ear canal or it could be associated with ear infections.  If your gerbil has a head tilt, take it to your veterinary surgery immediately.

Always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have ANY reason for concern about your gerbils’ health.

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Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Inc.)

Founded 1868 – Incorporated 1936

89 St Saviour’s Road, St Helier, Jersey JE2 4GJ         

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