It is usually best to get two same sex gerbils.
Gerbils naturally live in family groups that consist of a mom, dad, their newborns, some of their older offspring, and sometimes their extended family. They generally only live alone temporarily when they leave their original family to find a mate and start a colony of their own. While we cannot replicate their exact natural living situation in our homes, it is in their best interest to live with other gerbils. Since their territory in captivity is much smaller and more restricted than their natural environment, it is best to keep gerbils in pairs rather than larger groups. Gerbils should be kept in same sex pairs unless you have done the research needed to breed and are prepared for the number of pups you may end up with.
Yes! But it must be done carefully.
Gerbils are both extremely social animals and extremely aggressive towards unfamiliar gerbils, it may be their most frustrating trait! You may NEVER allow two unfamiliar gerbils to interact without a very careful and slow introduction process.
Although gerbils naturally crave companionship, they are fiercely territorial and distrustful of unfamiliar gerbils. In the wild a gerbil’s colony is something they are born into, not something they join as an adult. Gerbils would not normally allow an unfamiliar adult to join their colony and would instead attack and drive off any gerbil who entered their territory. The only time unfamiliar adults would get along would be if they viewed each other as potential mates. This natural distrust of unfamiliar gerbils means it is always easiest and safest to purchase two gerbils who are already bonded, usually siblings or a parent and child. That said, there are times where you will find yourself with a lone gerbil. In this case it is possible and usually advisable to attempt to bond him or her to another gerbil. This must be done in a very gradual and protected manner, called a “split tank introduction”. This is a way of placing the two gerbils into close but protected contact until they are comfortable with each other and begin to view one another as friends instead of strangers. It is not the most natural way for gerbils to form a bond, but the benefits of long term social living outweigh the temporary stress of going through the introduction. If you’d like more information on the split tank introduction please feel free to contact me.
Both male and female gerbils make excellent pets.
Unlike some other rodent species, there is no increased smell associated with male gerbils, all gerbils are quite clean and low in odor. The most noticeable difference is that males have obvious testicles which can deter some people. Other physical differences are that males tend to be slightly larger than females and that males have a larger scent gland on their stomachs. In personality, males are known to be a little lower energy, which can make them easier to hold (their larger size may also make them easier to hold). Females tend to be busier and are unlikely to hold still. However, in my experience, I’ve found all gerbils to be pretty busy creatures! They are unlikely to sit still in your hands for very long, male or female. Males are known to be easier to bond to other gerbils, especially baby gerbils, whereas females are known to take longer to bond and be less accepting of new tank-mates. In terms of health, each sex is prone to growing specific types of tumors in their senior years. Males are prone to scent gland tumors and females are prone to tumors of the ovaries. Females may also develop ovarian cysts which vary in their severity.
A pair of gerbils should live in a glass tank of at least 20 gallons.
Gerbils should live in tanks rather than cages so that they can have deep bedding to burrow in.
In the wild gerbils live in underground burrows with multiple chambers and connecting tunnels. A large portion of their day is spent creating and maintaining these burrows. If gerbils are not provided with enough bedding to burrow in they would be missing out on a very important source of enrichment. In addition to the importance of burrow digging as an enrichment activity, the burrows themselves provide a sense of safety and security. In order to make these burrows, a minimum of about 6 inches of bedding is recommended. The gerbils should also be able to stand erect on top of the bedding in at least some areas of the enclosure. Many people provide a deep bedding portion of the tank and a shallow bedding portion of the tank in order to allow burrowing but also provide an area for toys, a wheel, and to keep the water bottle from getting buried and drained. A minimum tank size of 20 gallons long is suggested in order to provide these conditions, but larger tanks are even better. I personally find 40 gallons to be an ideal size for non-breeding pairs. Avoid habitats made of plastic or wood parts that the gerbils can access. Gerbils can and will chew through both of these materials. Habitrail cages or other cages constructed with plastic tubing are not safe for gerbils.
There are many good options for substrate. I personally use Oxbow Pure Comfort (a paper based bedding) and Aspen wood shavings mixed together.
Other paper or wood based substrates are good options. Cedar wood shavings are not safe and should be avoided. Typically kiln dried pine and aspen are considered safe woods. Other options for paper based substrates are eco-bedding and Kaytee Clean and Cozy. Avoid bedding that produces a lot of dust, as inhaling dust can lead to respiratory irritation and even infections. Wood shavings will vary in their level of dustiness based on brand. If you find the bedding you use kicks up a lot of dust when you pour it into the tank I suggest using something different. Hay from the pet store can also be added to the bedding to help support tunnels.
Gerbils are very active and curious animals and love getting new toys to investigate. Generally toys made of wood, loofa, hay, coconut, paper, or cardboard are good choices. Avoid anything with plastic, fabric/fleece, string, styrofoam, or other synthetic materials.
Gerbils will chew everything and thus they should not be given anything that might be dangerous if accidentally ingested. Cardboard is very popular for gerbils. I always put loads of it down in the tank before filling it with bedding. The cardboard provides structure under the bedding to help hold up tunnels and nesting areas. I also like to use packing paper for this. The gerbils can chew through it to design their underground home any way they’d like. Cereal boxes, cracker boxes, toilet paper tubes, tissue boxes, etc. are all great fun for them. If there are any plastic components (as with tissue boxes and some pasta boxes) they should be fully removed before giving them to the gerbils. Avoid boxes used for frozen food as they are often coated with a waxy substance that may be harmful. I usually opt for toys that have some structure to them, like box or tunnel shaped items. Chew sticks, straight branches, or smooth blocks usually get buried and forgotten.
If you have a playpen, some of the “forbidden” toys may be safe to use during supervised time out where you can interrupt chewing. I often use plastic toys in my playpen because they are easy to clean between gerbils. The gerbils are supervised so that the item can be moved if they start to chew. Usually they are too busy exploring to settle down and chew much during play time anyway!
Wheels are another toy gerbils enjoy. Wheels are not a requirement but many gerbils love using them. Some gerbils do become obsessive though, so if you find your gerbil is spending too much time on the wheel it may be best to limit or stop wheel time. There are not many gerbil safe wheels on the market. Gerbils should have a solid surface to run on, no bars that a leg might slip through or mesh which might snag a toe. Wheels with cross bars should also be avoided unless the gerbil lives alone, as inevitably their tank mate will try to join them while they are running and may be struck in the head by the crossbar. The wheel must also be chew resistant. Generally this leaves you with three options. A solid wooden wheel, a thick plastic wheel, or a modified metal mesh wheel. Wooden wheels are often noisy and difficult to keep clean. They are also not entirely chew proof. Metal mesh wheels WITHOUT crossbars can have their track covered with duct tape. It is important that no sticky surface is exposed when you are through taping. This can be tedious, and the tape has to be changed regularly as it becomes soiled. There is also some risk that the tape will be chewed and could pose a hazard. There are some solid thick plastic wheels that people have had success with. They must be thick enough, and the edge smooth enough, that they are difficult to chew. The base must also be chew proof. They are easy to clean and often very quiet. Wheels must be large enough that the gerbil’s back is not curved while running. A minimum of an 8” diameter is recommended, but larger gerbils may need a larger wheel.
Gerbils are considered cathemeral which means that they display activity at random through both the day and night.
In captivity most gerbils have bouts of sleeping and being awake throughout the day and night. This makes them fun interactive pets during the day, and also means they can be noisy at night, so may not be an ideal bedroom pet for light sleepers. Gerbils will also adjust to your schedule if you tend to feed them or take them out to play at the same times each day.
With deep bedding you can clean your tank about once a month.
This does depend somewhat on the size of the enclosure and the depth of the bedding. Gerbils are often considered the cleanest rodents. They produce less urine than most rodents, so don’t require as frequent cleaning. I clean my typical enclosures about once a month. If my gerbils are on shallow bedding for some reason (like if I’m taming a new gerbil or for my breeding pairs) then I will clean more often. If it smells bad it should be cleaned ASAP. There are some people who clean even less often because the enclosure does not smell, but I don’t suggest going more than about 6 weeks. Even though the enclosure might not smell, the waste is sitting in there and may harbor growing bacteria. I’ve also found that over time the enclosures become dusty, likely due to bedding and cardboard giving off dust as they are ripped and chewed into smaller pieces by the gerbils.
Gerbils are excellent pets for older children, but may be hard to handle for younger kids.
Gerbils are friendly and active which makes them entertaining to watch for a child of any age, but if your child wants a pet they can hold, gerbils may not be the best choice for younger kids. They move quickly, do not settle in hands, and are small and delicate with tails that can be injured when grabbed. This makes them hard to catch, easy to drop, and easy to accidentally injure. I usually recommend them for children 10+ unless the younger child already has a lot of experience handling delicate creatures without injury (small active lizards, mice, insects etc.). They can still be a lot of fun for younger children if they are supervised closely. They are fun to watch and with adult help can be safely pet and held with close supervision. Children can sit in a playpen with the gerbils who will usually crawl all over the child’s lap, and even up their arms and onto their shoulders. But again, gerbils are easily injured, so if you think your child may get startled or overly silly when a gerbil runs up their arm, a more robust pet might be a better choice.
Gerbils are quite friendly with people and rarely bite.
I’ve had gerbils since I was 8 years old (over 20 years) and have only been bit hard enough to break skin twice. Even my very skittish individuals who run from me have not attempted to bite me once caught. That said, any animal with teeth may bite if scared or irritated. Overly long handling, rough, restrictive, or invasive handling, or prolonged attempts to catch a gerbil who doesn’t want to be caught could result in a bite. It’s always best to teach the gerbil to come to you to be picked up and allow them to move around while in your hands rather than restraining them completely. Young gerbils, much like puppies, will explore their environment with their teeth. So new gerbils will often “taste test” your hands to figure out what they are and if they can be eaten or chewed on. These nibbles are usually gentle but can startle children. I suggest responding by twitching your hand which will show the gerbil that the thing they bit is alive and not for chewing on! Also avoid handling your gerbils if you’ve recently eaten or handled another animal and have not washed your hands. The smell of food or unfamiliar animals can cause the gerbil to give you a chomp.
On average, gerbils live about 3 years, but longer is possible.
I’ve known a few people with gerbils that have lived to be 5 years old. The Guinness Book of World Records holder for longest living gerbil died at 8 years old!
Some gerbils are extremely easy to tame and others require more work. Patience and persistence are important with shy gerbils.
Gerbils are a prey species so it is natural instinct for them to run and hide when they hear sudden noises or see fast movement. But they can learn that they have nothing to fear from you and get used to the sounds of your home. Purchasing your gerbils from someone who handles them regularly from the time their eyes open will improve your chances of bringing home a friendly, outgoing gerbil. When I bring home a new gerbil I give them a few days to settle in without handling. I keep new gerbils in 20 gallon tanks with shallow bedding (but still boxes or houses to hide in) so that they are exposed to my presence. They can see and hear me and become accustomed to me being around. Then I will start hand feeding special treats to the gerbils. Nuts and seeds are popular treats, as are unflavored, lower sugar, grain based cereal (original Special K, Plain Cheerios, Plain Kix, etc.). This gives them a positive association with my hand entering their enclosure.
Eventually I will require that they step on my hand in order to get their treat, by placing one hand flat on the bedding and holding a treat over the flat hand with my other hand. I will do this until they show no hesitation about stepping onto my flat hand. Then I will raise the flat hand higher so the gerbil has to jump up a bit to get into my hand. At first they get treats just for placing front feet on the raised hand, but eventually they must jump onto it. This will get them used to being held up off the ground. Eventually I will start moving the hand slightly while they are sitting in it, raising it up to the second hand with the treat in it. I will continue to progress, getting them accustomed to being in my moving hand. Again, you will find some gerbils progress quickly and others take a lot of time. Go at their pace. Once they are happy to be on your moving hand, you’ll be able to reduce treats and instead reward them with time out of the tank. Most gerbils love going to their playpens or other out of tank adventures so will happily jump into your hand for adventures rather than treats. In the meantime you can still enjoy your gerbil in a playpen. Use a tube, jar, or box to move them from the tank to the playpen (gerbils can’t resist running into a new tube/box) and then sit in there with them. A gerbil who is scared of being picked up may still happily crawl on you in a playpen.
Gerbils, being social animals, have many ways to communicate with one another. Foot stomping is an alarm call that gerbils use to signal to their colony that there is danger.
A gerbil will often do it when startled by sudden movement or an unusual or loud noise. You will find your other gerbils will run for cover and start stomping back in response. After a foot stomping episode gerbils usually remain a little jumpy for a few minutes. Gerbils also foot stomp as part of their mating ritual. I’ve also seen gerbils foot stomp when meeting for the first time through a divider during a split tank introduction, likely the result of fear.
This is called a “stereotypic behavior” and may indicate that the gerbil’s environmental needs are not being met.
Research has shown that gerbils who are provided with an adequate burrow do not display corner digging behavior. If you find your gerbils doing this frequently it usually means they need deeper bedding or a larger deep bedding area so that they can build an underground burrow. Above ground hides are typically not good enough of a burrow to stop corner digging, they need a very dark burrow to feel safe and secure. Deep bedding that allows them to make their own underground burrow is the best way to provide this in most cases. If your gerbils have deep bedding and they still do this behavior, it may be because they were raised without a burrow and got into the habit of corner digging when they were young. In this case the behavior may continue no matter what you do but thankfully it will not cause any harm.
This is your gerbil’s scent gland.
Located right around the center of your gerbil’s belly, where you might expect a belly button, is a rough, oval, usually tan, patch of skin. This contains the scent gland which gerbils will rub against surfaces to mark them with their personal scent. You will notice gerbils do this most when put in a new environment or given a new toy. The scent gland should not have any lumps on it and if you do notice a lump it may be the start of a scent gland tumor.
Gerbils should never be bathed with water unless advised to by a vet in an emergency situation. Wetting down their entire body could cause them to become dangerously cold. Instead, gerbils keep their coat in tip top shape by taking sand baths.
When provided with sand, gerbils will roll around in it and the sand will remove body oils from their coat, leaving them soft and silky. You may keep a chew proof container of sand in their enclosure at all times, or provide one for them at least once a week. If kept in their enclosure it must be cleaned frequently as gerbils like to go potty in the sand. Avoid Chinchilla dust or sand that contains calcium. Regular play sand, reptile sand without calcium, or aragonite fish tank sand is best.
Gerbils usually do a good job of keeping their nails trimmed with their teeth, but if you find they need a little extra help you can provide an abrasive surface, such as a terra cotta pot, in their enclosure to scratch at and file down their nails. Trying to trim them yourself is not usually a good idea unless you have a very cooperative gerbil!
All gerbil owners should try to locate a local gerbil savvy vet as soon as possible. It can be hard to find a vet who knows how to treat small rodents like gerbils and, trust me, it’s extremely stressful to try and locate one when you have a life or death emergency on your hands.
In general, healthy gerbils do not need to go to the vet. They don’t need any vaccines and tend to find vet trips stressful. However, gerbils can get sick and injured, and when that happens a gerbil savvy vet is needed right away. Gerbils are good at hiding illness until it is quite advanced, so it’s never a good idea to wait and see once you’ve noticed symptoms. If you notice labored breathing, uncoordinated movement or weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, general lethargy, or any other indication that your gerbil is not feeling well, a vet trip is in order. Vets can also help with things like tumors and overgrown teeth before they become a life threatening problem.
Aim for a gerbil food that contains about 16% protein, 5-6% fat, and 6-10% fiber.
There is some debate about the dietary needs of gerbils. My recommendations are based on what I've read in scientific literature, though available research is limited, and through vet recommendations. Gerbil food comes in two forms: pellets and whole food mixes (which often contain some pellets too). Most vets recommend feeding a pelleted diet to your gerbils. When feeding whole food mixes gerbils can pick and choose which ingredients to eat and which to ignore which can lead to an unbalanced diet, often heavy on the fat! This cannot happen with pellets, each pellet is balanced and uniform, so you know your gerbil is getting the exact nutrition shown on the label. Unfortunately, there are very few good gerbil pellets on the market, most are designed for hamsters who need higher protein than gerbils. Aim for a protein content of about 14-16% for adults and 18% or more for pups. Scientific literature suggests fat content be around 5%. Most gerbil breeders suggest 6-9% fat, a recommendation that appears to be based on attaining the desired body type for show gerbils. Fiber should be about 6-10%. Ideally gerbils should be fed a mainly pelleted diet, with a whole food mix being given once or twice a week for enrichment.
Gerbils can also eat various snacks. Small amounts of fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, and grains make great snacks for gerbils. Avoid most processed foods (some simple cereals, pastas, and crackers may be safe depending on ingredients). Make sure to research the safety of any new food before offering it to your gerbils.
Higgins Sunburst Hamster & Gerbil
Tropical Carnival Natural Hamster-Gerbil
Oxbow Garden Select Hamster & Gerbil
Oxbow Pure Comfort. Comes in white, natural (light brown), and a mix of the two colors.
Aspen flake bedding. I currently use Kaytee brand, but any brand that isn't dusty will do.
Eco-Bedding. Dust free and fluffs up significantly once they dig around in it a bit.
Niteangel Super Silent Hamster Wheel, size medium.
Comes in several colors, has adjustable height, fits in a 20 gallon long tank, and is very quiet. Very chew resistant.
The Oasis Small Animal Water Bell Bottle with Bottle Guard. The guard prevents the gerbils from chewing the bottle. The guard also comes with a flat, flexible metal hanger that allows you to hang the bottle from the edge of a tank and still be able to put the lid on the tank. PetSmart also sells this bottle under their own brand name All Living Things.
Fluker's Natural Dune Sand. Calcium free, no dyes, no dust. Great for sand baths.
Reptisand in desert white. Calcium free, no dyes, no dust. Great for sand baths.
Basic 20 gallon long set up. The tank is divided into deep substrate and shallow substrate sides using a flexible wooden bridge. This prevents the wheel and water bottle from being buried. The shallow side would also be a good place for a sand bath.
Basic 40 gallon tank set up. The tank is divided into a deep and shallow substrate area by a flexible wooden bridge. You can see where the gerbils have burrowed on the deep side. The shallow side houses the wheel, water bottle, and sand bath. There is another flexible wooden bridge leading from the top of the divider to the shallow side, acting as a ramp so that the gerbils do not have to jump up