Basic Gerbil Care
The gerbil was first brought to the United States from Mongolia in 1954. Since then, it has rapidly become a popular pet with its enticing large eyes and long furry tail. In fact its tail is the same length or longer than its body! This curious, social creature has an average lifespan of 2-3 years, and takes up little space, making an excellent pet when cared for properly.
Just like a kid in a sandbox, gerbils love to dig! This is a natural behaviour for them, and does not indicate stress or unhappiness. In the wild, gerbils will dig quite elaborate tunnel systems. It is important for your gerbil’s health to try and mimic their natural habitat. Now, it is not necessary to build an extensive tunnel system for them, but provide bedding material that they can dig and tubing or similar items for them to hide in. Another method to provide exercise for your pet is to install an exercise wheel in the cage. However, the standard hamster exercise wheel can be dangerous to your gerbil! A gerbil’s paws differ from a hamster, so it is easier for them to get their paws stuck in between the wires and cause serious injury. Keep an eye out for wheels with a solid bottom; these are ideal for your pet. Additionally, simply rearranging items in the cage will keep your gerbil mentally stimulated. Anything you can do to exercise those ‘wheels’ in your pet’s head and give them something to do will prevent boredom and you will have a pet that is more willing to socialize with you.
Speaking of socializing, gerbils are extremely social animals. Compared to the hamster once again, gerbils are the extreme opposite. The Siberian hamster is a solitary creature, and where two are placed in close living quarters they fight. Alternatively, the gerbil will become depressed living alone. Gerbils need and thrive on the companionship that comes with living with another gerbil. Although gerbils are happier living with another gerbil, be careful only to house same-sex pairs together or you will very rapidly be the owner of many baby gerbils.
Now that you have your gerbil’s housing all set up, what do you feed it? Providing proper nutrition to a gerbil will increase their lifespan, preventing common problems like obesity. Gerbil food that is a mixture of seeds and pellets should be avoided, as it can often be a culprit in causing obesity. What’s the best part of an M&M cookie? The M&M’s obviously! Now, applying this to your gerbil’s food, the seeds are like dessert to them. So, since the seeds are so much tastier than the pellets they will often just pick out the seeds and only eat the pellets once the seeds have been devoured. Actually, some will go so far as to refuse to eat the pellets altogether. These gerbils have their owners trained extremely well, who may refill the food not wanting the gerbil to starve, only to have them demolish all the seeds once again. Gerbils are greedy little creatures that love to hoard their food, so don’t be surprised if you find stashes of food amongst the bedding when cleaning the cage!
The gerbil is a desert animal, and being so, it does not consume vast quantities of water. To you, this may not seem like enough water to survive, but they are so efficient at conserving water that they only need less than 1 teaspoon per day. Impressive! However, just because they do not drink a lot of water, does not mean that they should not always have ample water available. It should be changed daily, and kept in a water bottle ideally, to enhance cleanliness by preventing bedding from being kicked into it.
In addition to the areas discussed in housing, exercise, social nature and nourishment, the gerbil also has some unique features that are worth knowing. Both female and male gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen. This gland appears as an orange-tan oval shaped hairless area. Upon maturation of male gerbils, this special gland will enlarge and give off an oily secretion used to mark territory. So if you see your adult male rubbing his abdomen against an object, this is what he’s doing! Another feature of the gerbil that should be mentioned, is regarding to the length of its tail. Although it may be tempting to pick it up by that long tail, this should never be done. This will greatly injure your pet. Instead, gently scoop up your gerbil with your hands to pick it up.
The gerbil can truly enhance your life for the relatively short amount of time it spends as your pet. Treat it with love and respect as you would any other pet, and you will reap the enjoyment of owning a lively, curious, social creature that will ‘dig a hole in your heart.’
By Laura Platt – Pets.ca writer