GERBIL FACT SHEET
History and Biology
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.
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
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).
average life expectancy of a gerbil is from three to five years and the
average adult body weight is 70-120grams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diseases and Ailments
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.
– 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.
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
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.
– 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.
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
consult a veterinary surgeon if you have ANY reason for concern about your
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“BSAVA Manual of
Exotic Pets,” 4th Edition 2002.
Zoo, Zoological Society of London - Pet Fact Sheets.
The Blue Cross Gerbil Pet Facts.
Supreme Petfoods Ltd– www.russelrabbit.com