Gerbil FAQs

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What is a gerbil, and how did they become house pets?

The gerbil is a mammal and a rodent that originated in the warm climates of Asia and Africa. In fact, gerbils used to be called “desert rats” and do fine in dry environments. These small animals grow to anywhere from 6 to 12 inches long (with the tail included) and weigh about 2 to 3 ounces on average. With good care, a gerbil can live 3 to 5 years. Estimates of gerbil types range from approximately 90 to 110, but the Mongolian gerbil is the one most commonly kept as a house pet in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is believed that in the 19th century, Father Armand David, a European Catholic priest and zoologist, sent some of these gerbils from China to France. From there, they made their way to the United States and throughout Europe by the middle of the 20th century, with the help of humans, of course.

What makes a gerbil different than a hamster, mouse, or rat?

Gerbils resemble hamsters; indeed, they are related, and many people confuse the two animals. However, gerbils are generally bigger than hamsters, yet slimmer, and their tails are longer and fluffier.
Many characteristics of gerbils make them ideal pets. One major benefit of owning a gerbil is that their cages require less frequent cleaning. This is because gerbils are desert animals and are accustomed to eating and drinking small amounts; therefore, they produce less waste. Gerbils are also less likely to bite than other small rodents that are kept as pets. Furthermore, because gerbils are not strictly nocturnal, they are more apt to be energetic and playful during the daytime than other rodents.

Why does my gerbil bite, and how do I make it stop?

Gerbils are not normally aggressive and usually bite only if they are ill, scared, or feel threatened; however gerbils do have a natural urge to gnaw. Admittedly, it can be difficult to tell how a gerbil is feeling or what its motivation might be. The gerbils that I breed are highly unlikely to bite, but if this behavior does occur, the good news is that you can train your gerbil to stop. Try bopping the gerbil very lightly on top of its head and say, “No!” Also, do not put the gerbil back in its cage immediately after it bites, this will encourage a learned behavior that biting equals going back inside. Handling the gerbil gently from the time it is young generally discourages any nipping.

Why do gerbils love to chew so much, what’s safe for them to chew?

Chewing is a healthy habit! Gerbils’ teeth are constantly growing, much like our fingernails; therefore, gerbils must chew on things in order to file their teeth down to a manageable length. You can provide your gerbil with scrap cardboard and paper; pieces cut from toilet paper rolls work well. Coconut shells and twigs are great, too. You can also purchase special chew blocks or wooden toys from a pet store. Just be sure that whatever you offer does not contain any ink, perfume, flavoring, or glue, as these might be toxic to your pet.

Is it bad that my gerbil scratches at the corners of its cage?

Not at all. While humans may find it annoying, this is perfectly normal behavior for a gerbil. Gerbils love to burrow, and it is their natural instinct to try and dig tunnels wherever they can. This is why they scratch at the cage. Giving your gerbil a hut to hide in can help reduce this natural urge. If you’re really invested in your gerbil, you can purchase a cage that contains an extensive artificial burrow system, or you can build one yourself. Keep in mind that plastic parts can pose a problem if ingested, and hamster habitats are inappropriate for gerbils.

I live in California/Hawaii and gerbils are illegal. Why?!

Gerbils are technically considered wild animals, not domesticated. Some experts believe that if gerbils would happen to get loose, they would thrive and overpopulate so as to cause a nuisance, much like the cane toads in Australia. Wild gerbils could pose a threat to agricultural crops and other wild animals. On the other hand, domesticated rodents such as guinea pigs and certain rats and mice are permissible in California and Hawaii. The same experts believe that these animals are so dependent on humans that they could not survive in the wild, let alone reproduce rapidly. Regardless of whether you agree or not, pet gerbils are against the law in these two states, and violations can bring stiff penalties.

Can gerbils eat any “human” food as snacks?

Yes. Many natural foods that humans eat are also suitable for gerbils. These include certain organic fresh fruits and veggies, as well as raw, unsalted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Gerbils may also eat Cheerios and Kashi (without the milk, please). Stay away from any packaged, processed, or even non-organic produce and seeds. If you have a specific food-related question, feel free to contact me. Many seemingly innocuous foods and plants can be toxic to gerbils. It’s far better to ask than to experiment and end up with a sick pet.

What makes a good treat for my gerbil?

You can make your gerbil very happy by supplying mealworms as a treat. Only offer mealworms once a week at the most; as in the case of humans, treats should be enjoyed in moderation. Some other occasional treats for gerbils include dried fruit, tiny bits of cheese or cooked egg, bread or toast, and soft cat treats! Again, always ask before offering a treat. Something that is a treat to a human or other animal could be poisonous to a gerbil.

Are there any special gerbil health concerns that I should be aware of?

Like most animals, gerbils are predisposed to certain conditions. Perhaps surprisingly, many gerbils have epilepsy. In most cases, a seizure passes without causing long-term damage. Gerbils also have a tendency to develop tumors, which may or may not be malignant. Some gerbils may exhibit trouble with their ears or teeth.
The best way to keep your gerbil in good health is to handle it carefully. Dropping a gerbil can cause fractures or internal injuries that may not always be apparent at first. Also, improper handling (or other injuries) can cause its tail to gradually slough off. Be on the lookout for loss of fur or skin from the tail.

Please have a look at our illness page for more information.

Do gerbils have any particular personality or behavioral characteristics?

I’m glad you asked! One of the reasons why gerbils are popular pets is their sociable, playful nature. In the wild, gerbils live together. When confined to a cage, a solo gerbil may become lonely. However, one must introduce gerbils carefully; otherwise, the new gerbil may be viewed as an intruder who must be “dealt with.” Fighting in captivity is more dangerous than it is in nature, because the opponents are trapped and cannot run to safety. That being said, fighting usually occurs on one of two levels. Boxing behavior, which includes hitting and pushing, is milder and may be an expression of assertiveness or annoyance. The gerbils should eventually separate themselves from the conflict. With younger gerbils, this is often a playful behavior. When the gerbils roll into a ball, this is an escalation of the fight that requires your intervention, as they may draw blood and eventually kill one another.