Mongolian Gerbil Care and Housing Primer
"Your gerbils will know the love you share with proper housing and proper care..."
A Grey Agouti pup dashes away from the approaching camera.
There are more than 85 gerbil species known today. The one most commonly kept as a pet is the Mongolian gerbil. This website is devoted to the Mongolian gerbil.
Caring for gerbils is not difficult…but it is a commitment. Actually, gerbils care for themselves. As gerbil keepers we merely provide them with the means to do so.
In the wild, under normal conditions, the natural ecological system in which gerbils live provides them with all they need to survive. Nature provides the gerbil with the "know how". In addition to food and shelter, nature even provides a waste disposal system in which gerbil wastes are degraded by natural biological processes. This same ecosystem also contains natural detriments to gerbil survival including: extremes of temperatures; natural calamities; predators and competitors. There is a balance in nature.
One of our roles as gerbil keepers is to provide those things found in the wild, but lost in captivity, which are necessary for our gerbil's well being and survival. We do, of course, provide one major bonus not found in the wild …a human, loving, watchful eye, ever vigilant for signs of illness or injury. Left unattended in the wild, illnesses and injuries might be fatal. Discovered in captivity, they can be diagnosed and most can be treated.
In effect, each time we construct a gerbil habitat we create an enclosed and controlled miniature ecosystem. We try to selectively provide what nature offers for gerbil survival and, to the best of our ability, we try to eliminate the otherwise natural detriments. We control this delicate ecobalance. It is an exciting challenge and a responsibility not to be taken lightly...at times it may require putting our gerbil's needs before our pleasures.We also provide our gerbils with the opportunity and the likelihood of outliving their relatives in the wild. A well attended gerbil may live 3 to 5 years. If we are successful, our gerbils will lead happy, healthy lives in benevolent captivity with some very emotionally fulfilled human keepers!
Familiarizing ourselves with several gerbil traits will eliminate much of the mystery surrounding proper gerbil care and housing and help us on the road to becoming successful gerbil keepers. We soon discover how obvious are the components of proper care. Take a few moments to perform a simple and fun exercise. Following are some gerbil traits. Think about each trait. In a sentence (or word) or two, write down your thoughts of what each trait might imply as gerbil care and housing needs are concerned. Be practical and let your good judgement and common sense be your guides. You'd be surprised to learn that you probably will design a worthy gerbil habitat, diet and ….ecosystem!
SOME GERBIL TRAITS…
Gerbils are rodents; (The word "rodent" comes from the Latin word "rodere" which means to gnaw.)
Gerbils are native to desert areas;
Gerbils live in burrows;
Gerbils are communal;
Gerbils can be territorial;
Gerbils are very active, curious and have a pleasant disposition;
Gerbils are mammals.
Gerbils are rodents. The rodent family is large and includes such critters as guinea pigs, squirrels and porcupines. The word rodent is derived from the Latin word "Rodere", which means to gnaw. A similar latin word, "Radere", means to scrape or scratch…both words describe favored and necessary gerbil activities. Additionally, rodents are characterized as having, in their upper and lower jaws, a single pair of incisor teeth. These incisors continue to grow throughout the life of the gerbil. Without gnawing, the gerbils' incisors would continue to grow and eventually become useless, even detrimental...the gerbil would not be able to eat or prepare nesting material. The incisors may even grow into the roof of the gerbils' mouth causing severe discomfort, possible infection and death. Scratching on items helps keep the gerbil's claw length in check. Overgrown claws would make eating difficult if not impossible.
What were your thoughts? Gerbils need a continuous source of gnawing material such as wood chews, bird ladders, cardboard tubes etc., to allow them to continually trim their incisors and keep their front claws in check. Teeth should be examined on a regular basis. If your gerbil is not eating and an examination of it's teeth leads you to suspect the incisors are too long...see a veterinarian...it may be time for a trim.
Habitats should be constructed with materials that are impervious to the inevitable gnaw of the mighty gerbil jaw. Generally acceptable habitats include wire/bar cages, (similar to bird cages) plastic housing, and aquariums…with the aquarium being very popular.
If an open bar cage is used it should have a solid bottom which will permit the gerbil to nest, and close enough spacing between the bars to keep the gerbils in and other pets (cats, dogs, etc.) out. Since there will be a free flow of air, the cage habitat should be maintained in a dry, draft free location…and be on the look out for eventual rusting. It is also likely that as the gerbils dig they will kick the bedding between the bar spaces and out of the cage.
Plastic housing, (such as "habitrails") is very popular. This may consist of a main "den" and several other dens connected by plastic tubing. The combinations are limitless and quite often the gerbil keeper's finished habitat design can look like a work of modern art. Gerbils can be observed as they crawl through the tubular superhighways. Since this habitat is chiefly an enclosure, there is no threat of drafts. Care should be taken to make sure that there are no exposed plastic corners. The gerbils will gladly gnaw the plastic to dust…working their way through the tubes once they find a weak spot and gradually causing the need for expensive house repairs. From our own experience, it is advisable to examine the tubes regularly as gerbils will often use them as bathrooms...not so bad, this simply requires disinfecting the affected areas.
The basic aquarium seems to be the most popular tool for creating a habitat. Since aquariums are made of glass, visibility is not restricted and since they are enclosures, there is no need to worry about drafts. The aquarium is usually covered with a screen hood to permit airflow and to prevent escape (and entry by unwanted visitors).
NOTE: Eva Miesals' website..."1001 Ways to House a Gerbil"...contains many wonderful pictures offering examples of how gerbil keepers around the world house their gerbils. We suggest you visit this most entertaining site! [See Snooty's LINKS and HOUSING Pages.]
Gerbils are native to desert areas. The topography and physical configuration of these regions is often one of sparsely scattered bushy areas of clay and sandy deserts. Such regions are often arid... and extremes of hot and cold temperatures are common. Perhaps these regions seem harsh and inhospitable to us...yet, the miracle of life flourishes there. A tribute to nature! It would seem unlikely that gerbils would have access to drinkable water on any regular basis. It is no wonder then that gerbils have evolved the ability to extract water from the food they eat and to retain it in layers of fatty cells. Indigenous to some of these regions are food sources such as roots, stalks, flowers and seeds from plants.
Additionally, gerbils tend to be clean and take advantage of their sandy environment to take "sand baths" by rolling themselves around in the sand. These baths clean, groom and condition the gerbil's coat and remove excess oils from their fur.
Note: Visit The National Gerbil Society's website for pictures of our gerbil's natural habitat. [See Snooty's LINKS Page.]
This five week old lilac gerbil is really enjoying a snack during a "dust bath". Notice how he expresses his pleasure with his eyes partially closed and his ears slanted backwards? The dust bath is chinchilla dust bath. It is available at most pet shops.
A Silver Nutmeg (Sopran Fair) and a Polar Fox (Shoop) enjoy a sand bath. The camera flash has made their dark eyes appear red.
What were your thoughts? It seems fair to say that, given this environment, the natural diet of gerbils in the wild is generally rich in seeds, roots, an occasional protein rich insect etc., but not rich in liquids. Consequently, gerbils produce little (but concentrated) urine, and produce solid waste (feces) in the form of small odorless pellets. (This is a plus for them as perspective pets.) In captivity, as in the wild, gerbils ordinarily do not require large amounts of water. Nevertheless, the habitat should always contain a water source such as a water bottle. Vitamin supplements, available at most pet stores, are often added. Gerbils enjoy eating vegetables. When feeding vegetables, care should be taken not to overfeed. While vegetable matter is important in a gerbil's diet, (as a source of water, vitamins and minerals, and fiber for elimination) given the gerbils natural constitution, an excess of vegetable matter can be harmful causing gastrointestinal problems, even diarriah. [See Snooty's Cuisine Page for dietery suggestions.] When feeding veggies avoid excess.
Gerbils should be given the opportunity to "sand bathe" at least once a week. Coarse sand like that found at the beach is not recommended. Instead, gerbils will do well with a "dust bath". Bathing dust is available at most pet shops. We use chinchilla dust bath (about 1 inch deep) twice a week and permit our gerbils to "bathe" for about thirty minutes. Gerbils enjoy these dust baths as they roll in the dust and play. If the gerbil's coat becomes damp or matted, this is usually a sign that a bath is in order. Additionally, the habitat should be cleaned, at a minimum, every two weeks. We clean and disinfect our habitats weekly using a mild disinfectant, although hot water alone should be sufficient.
Gerbils live in burrows. As land dwelling rodents, gerbils nest and live in underground burrows often several feet deep and generally containing several exits and dens . This makes good sense since it enables them to elude visiting predators, to insulate themselves against inhospitable weather, (keeping cool in the heat and warm in the cold) and to have and raise their young in relative safety. Burrows and similar small enclosures make gerbils feel secure. They are tunneling critters that are accustomed to close quarters and are home bodies that generally do not travel very far from their burrows.
What were your thoughts? Habitats should include an enclosure such as a small nesting box which will give the gerbils a sense of security as a place to hide, relax, avoid stress etc. Bedding material is also esential. Bedding serves several purposes including absorption of gerbil wastes and as a nesting material…if the gerbil keeper provides no other special nesting material. Habitats should include enough bedding material for the gerbils to dig and simulate burrows (perhaps three to four inches). We have found that this can be encouraged by placing several wooden ladders, ordinarily made for small birds, in the habitat along with "rolled up" manila file folder sections.
These gerbils (all huddled together) have managed to create a burrow six inches deep. Note the chewed up manila folder pieces that have settled together and help support the burrow. Not visible are several wooden bird ladders and various wood chews that have also settled together to help support this gerbil architecture. Since there are no heavy objects here, a collapse will not harm the gerbils.
The choice of bedding material is important. Many breeders (including ourselves) prefer commercially available aspen wood shavings, in combination with corn cobb, to shavings that contain odor eliminators such as chlorophyll. Many feel the addition of these chemicals is, in the long run, detrimental to gerbil health and should be avoided. Additionally, aspen shavings create minimal dust as they slowly break down in the habitat. This is an advantage… for the gerbil and the gerbil keeper will be inhaling less dust, therefore reducing the risk of respiratory and other related problems. We also use Carefresh for our pup habitats. Certain items, such as wool, should be avoided as they might be ingested and ensnarl the digestive tract! Check everything going into the habitat for sharp edges or any signs that will lead you to believe that an item may be harmful to the gerbils. When in doubt...leave it out.
When preparing our habitats we use a combination of corn cobb and aspen wood bedding. We first place a thin layer of corn cobb down followed by a two to three inch layer of aspen wood. Each day we provide rolled manila file folders as additional gnawing material. The manila "chew ups" eventually mix with the wood shavings facilitating the gerbils burrow building. We also add several pieces of facial tissue which the gerbils readily drag into their burrows and fashion into soft beds. [See Snooty's Housing Pages 1 and 2.]
Compare the consistancy of corn cobb (left) and wood shavings (right).
Gerbils are very active, curious, have a pleasant disposition and can be tamed. They seem to have an endless resource of energy! They love to play, run and jump and are most content when they have diversions to occupy themselves. They do have intervals of deep sleep during the day and are best left undisturbed. They can be equally active day or night. They are brave and not quick to retreat from a new sound, toy, etc. On the contrary, their natural curiosity seems to compel them to "discover the source". It generally requires quite a bit of abuse to arouse a gerbil to bite, but if abused, they will bite. Gerbils handled at an early age, say ten to twelve days old, often quickly become accustomed to the human touch and are readily tamed. It is important to see the parent's reaction in this regard. If the parents become stressed with the handling of their pups, it is best to wait a while longer before attempting to handle them again.
What were your thoughts? A healthy gerbil is an active gerbil! Gerbils should be alert, playful, have a good appetite and be curious. The coat should have a sheen and feel soft to the touch and the eyes should be clear and without discharge. Gerbils are generally responsive to anyone approaching their habitat. However, sudden movements towards them (even by their keeper) can frighten them. Therefore, signs that there may be a problem include…lethargy, lack of interest in play and food, and loss of their responsiveness to your approach. These observations are also important when looking for a gerbil to adopt. In addition, staying active and healthy requires a varied diet. [See Snooty's Cuisine Page for diet details.]
Gerbils should be provided with a variety toys. Toys serve several purposes including incisor control and helping gerbils to stay physically fit and trim. Wooden tunnels, bird ladders, wood chews, cardboard tubes, manila folders etc., all provide a means of amusement and the harder wooden toys help control incisor growth as the gerbils gnaw on them. Toys also help avoid boredom and can actually encourage physical activity…a bored gerbil is not a happy gerbil. Boredom can lead to lethargy, loss of appetite and even possible excess grooming, which can result in hair loss...particularly at the tail. If plastic toys are given, care should be taken to make sure the items are non-toxic.
Additionally, exercise is important! In the wild gerbils have plenty of free space to run, although they do not venture far from their burrows. Lack of exercise and a diet rich in fatty foods (sunflower seeds for example) can lead to obesity. Obese gerbils may develop gastrointestinal problems, may find difficulties in conceiving and may have a shortened life span. Many gerbil keepers provide an exercise wheel in the habitat. While this is a great means of exercise (and one that we employ) there is a potential danger. A gerbil can get its long tuft tail caught between the wheel's spaces and damage or even loose its tail. If an exercise wheel is to be used consider providing a layer of tape or paper along the entire inside running area (and outside) to avoid such accidents. Since the gerbil will eventually chew the tape…gerbil keeper supervision of this type of exercise might be in order.
Here are before and after photos of a plastic exercise wheel that has been taped for gerbil safety.
Gerbils are communal. Gerbils enjoy the company of other gerbils! In the wild gerbils may live in family clans or groups. If a burrow is large enough, it may even house several family dens.
Five adult gerbil sisters (a Red Fox and four Lilacs) get "communal" over dinner. These gerbils have been housed together since birth. Notice their "burrow" one level below them.
What were your thoughts? Gerbils are very social creatures and do better when kept in pairs or appropriate groups (of the same sex and age). They enjoy the company of other gerbils and, as they come to recognize their keeper (by the keeper’s scent, shape of hand, etc.), will ordinarily look to the keeper to play. Gerbils should be handled regularly and given attention often to reaffirm your bonds. They can be observed playing with one another whether it is a game of "chase", play "fighting", or "wrestling". You’ll soon observe your gerbils grooming each other and huddling in a group as they settle down for a nap. From a practical stand point, communal living affords gerbils in the wild protection from the cold as they cuddle to conserve heat, and protection from predators, as gerbils will often warn each other of impending danger by making a thumping sound with their hind paws ("thumpers" as we call them). You may observe this thumping with your gerbils should they become frightened. It is often also a sign of sexual arousal.
The top Polar Fox gerbil is grooming his Silver Nutmeg (Blue Fox) brother. Gerbils enjoy grooming and being groomed and readily position themselves so that the various parts of their body can be reached. This tender behavior is a joy to observe.
If a female who is nursing pups becomes stressed, it is possible that the mother may eat one or more of her pups. Any number of things can stress a nursing mom... excessive handling of the pups or mom, intrusions while feeding is taking place, overcrowding, continuous loud noises or simply the inability to escape the "stressors". Remember, gerbils should be provided with some type of nesting box for privacy, sleep, etc. [See Snooty's HOUSING PAGE.] We have not witnessed this type of stress behavior (yet) since we provide more than adequate privacy and habitat space. However, we have observed one gerbil mother eating a pup that was born dead. We simply left the mother undisturbed for it is possible that the pup may have been providing mom with some nutritional requirement or the mother was simply "cleaning up". We have also had occasion to observe adolescents from an immediately preceeding litter help mom clean and tend to new born pups.
A single gerbil may be kept as a pet but, being social by nature, this is not advisable. We have observed that such isolation sometimes leads to what appears to be a depressed state...lethargy, nervousness...and sometimes even aggressive behavior. While such a situation might be reversed with the proper introduction of a companion, (as in the case when a partner succumbs to illness) it is best to start your gerbil keeping with at least a pair. Your gerbils will be happier.
Gerbils can be territorial. Gerbils are generally considered to reach maturity or adulthood at about 3 months of age. Prior to maturity, "pups" and adolescents tend to readily accept strangers into their ranks and bonding or acceptance seems to come easily with little or no fanfare. As gerbils reach maturity they tend to become more aware of the universe around them and gradually become more and more territorial. Gerbils will lay claim to and mark their territories, objects and each other with their scent glands, which are located about mid abdomen. Each gerbil has its own identifying scent, which sends out a signal to other gerbils. From this age forward, strangers are generally frowned upon and bonding with, and acceptance of strange gerbils is not likely to happen quickly, if at all. This can become a challenge (though not impossible) for the gerbil keeper hoping to pair unfamiliar adult gerbils. Unfamiliar gerbils improperly introduced can result in fights, serious injuries and even death. Fighting gerbils that form a ball as they are fighting are generally considered to be trying to kill one another. Do not attempt to stop a gerbil fight with your bare hands! Rather, make a loud noise, tap on the habitat or wear gloves to avoid being an innocent bystander and incurring a sharp bite.
Adult gerbils can be induced to accept one another by gradually becoming acquainted with each other. A common method used to achieve this acquaintance/acceptance is referred to as the "split cage method". While there are variations of this technique, it basically involves dividing the habitat in two by using a wire mesh or similar type screen.
The photo to the far left shows a 20 gal. long aquarium. The aquarium is divided in two using a divider ordinarily used to separate tropical fish. The left and right supports are strong and made of black color metal. The dividing material is made of firm, perforated plastic. You will probably want to cut and trim a piece of wire mesh and substitute this for the plastic.
The middle photo is an ariel view of the same aquarium. We placed several pieces of manila folder across the top of the divider to make the divider flush with the aquarium screen hood. This avoids a premature introduction by preventing the gerbils from going over the top.
The photo to the far right shows the left side and right side metal supports. A white plastic strip is at the bottom of the plastic divider and was taped to the aquarium floor ; the metal supports were taped to the aquarium sides. The plastic material is necessarily transparent...so the picture shows the gerbils' view of the other compartment...it is not a reflection.
Each gerbil is temporarily placed in its own aquarium half and allowed to see each other and become familiar with the scent of the other gerbil through the mesh petition. After a short while, the gerbils will have marked their respective territories. They are then switched and given a chance to really get familiar with the other gerbil's scent. This can be done, under supervision, several times a day for several days or even weeks. With luck, in time the gerbils will have well acquainted themselves with each other's scent and can be placed together…under careful supervision. If a problem occurs, separate them for a while then try again. Patience is important! It is also possible that some gerbils will never accept one another.
Gerbils from the same litter generally bond and can be left together through adulthood provided there is sufficient space in their habitat and that they are kept in appropriate pairs or groups. For minimal space requirements some breeders follow this general formula: the approximate equivalent space of a 5-gallon aquarium per gerbil. Four gerbils would require a minimum space of a 20-gallon long aquarium.
We have not had a problem with housing, on occasion, as many as 5 adult gerbils of the same sex and the same litter in a 20-gallon long aquarium…but even this would be our absolute maximum and neither our regular practice nor a recommended practice. Nevertheless, if space permits and you are able to exceed these minimum guidelines, by all means do so! Provide all the space you possibly can whether for one gerbil or 10 gerbils. Additionally, since gerbils come in male and female varieties, unless you intend to breed gerbils, the sexes should be separated before reaching sexual maturity, which usually occurs between 8 and 12 weeks of age.
These five adult female gerbils live in a 20 gal.long aquarium habitat... without fights or other incidents so far . Having been kept together since birth helps make this cohabitation possible...but it is not a recommended practice! Should any disorder occur, we are prepared to divide this clan.
What were your thoughts? Avoid overcrowding habitats which can stress gerbils and lead to aggressive behavior and illness. Overcrowding can also tip the eco-balance of your gerbil habitat as waste materials (feces, urine, food, soiled bedding) accumulate quicker requiring a more frequent clean-up schedule.
Gerbils are mammals. They have self regulating body temperatures, hair, and in the case of females, milk producing glands. Gerbils are hardy and ordinarily not prone to sickness. If sickness does occur, it may be the result of inappropriate care and less than sanitary conditions. Nevertheless, even with the best of care, as with all living things, the potential for illness always exists. Conditions that may affect gerbils include, but are not limited to: mange (parasitic infestations); colds; wet tail; worms. However such conditions are the exception and not the rule and general proper attendance is a strong safeguard.
What were your thoughts? Gerbils can become ill from time to time. For occassional superficial wounds such as scratches, cuts, irritated noses, etc., we maintain an infirmary/isolation habitat. We keep it supplied with general antiseptics such as Betadine Solution and Hydrogen Peroxide, and supplies of Q-Tips, cotton swabs, cotton pads and eye droppers. We affectionately refer to our infirmary as "Snooty's M.A.S.H" unit. For more serious wounds or suspected illnesses it is recommended that you do not attemt to diagnose the illness yourself. WE DON'T. Rather, play it safe and seek veterinary assistance immediately. On more than one occasion we brought, what were seriously ill pups, to our regular vet. Proper antibiotics were prescribed and with an extra bit of tender loving care the pups survived. Never hesitate to see a vet. They do save (gerbil) lives.
Gerbil moms nurse their pups with milk! Gestation (pregnancy) ordinarily lasts 24 to 29 days. Mom's tummy will usually visibly swell 3 to 5 days before birth. Pregnancy calls for a slight change in diet. It is usually a good idea to increase slightly mom's fat intake. A few extra sunflower seeds now and then, some powdered milk, perhaps even a little milk soaked bread crust just a few days before estimated birth and during nursing.
The pups enter the world approximately 1 inch in length, 0.1 ounce in weight, without fur, with eyes closed, unable to control their body temperature and without teeth...essentially, they are born helpless. Litters average 4 to 5 pups but may be as few as 1 and as many as 10. Our litters average 5 pups...but we have had as many as 8 pups. In our experience, it appears that the smaller the litter the larger the pups. While females go in heat approximately every 5 to 10 days, we have observed that copulation often occurs several hours after the litter is born.
One day old pups
First time moms may find pup care a bit confusing. Experience is the best teacher and left to their own instincts moms will generally know what to do. Dad will ordinarily leave mom and the pups alone for a few days but it won't be long before dad helps mom with caring for the pups. This is a time for quietness and stress avoidance. Moms almost appear to display a feeling of contentment as they nurse their new born. Pups do not hesitate to let mom know when they are hungry. Hungry pups give a delightful "squeak" when they are hungry. As the pups grow, (and they grow fast) with their demand for milk, nursing moms can become quite exhausted. We regularly observe moms who are about to wean pups, take a "no can reach" posture preventing the pups from reaching mom's teets...at least for a while. Moms who are within a day or so of having their pups tend to exhibit the same behavior possibly do to the strain of late pregnancy. Before you know it...the next litter is on the way!
Both of these moms are taking a break from nursing their pups who are approaching weaning age.
They are temporarily exhausted.
We bring our gerbil primer to a close at this point...but not to an end. After all, we are always learning something new about gerbils and will regularly update this primer...since it can never have an end.
It seems proper to close our gerbil primer with the topic of birth and new life. While the primer is closing, you are still embarking on a journey...because, in part, that is what gerbil keeping is about: a journey of companionship, discovery, custodialship of life, and if you so choose to breed, a witness to birth.