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Gerbil Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

 

Overview

Meriones unguiculatus

These mammals belong to the Rodentia order and the family Muridae. There are more than 80 known species of gerbils. The most common species of pet gerbil is the Mongolian gerbil (also called the desert rat) whose scientific name (Meriones unguiculatus) translates into "little clawed warrior" in Latin. The name, however, can be a little misleading, since pet gerbils are often docile and calm. Mongolian gerbils are small, typically white-bellied, agouti-colored rodents found in deserts in Africa, Central Asia, India and the Middle East. Gerbils are social animals with bold and curious personalities. Gerbils love to burrow and play in tubes and boxes, and with proper socialization, they can be hand-tamed, cuddly pets.

Typical appearance and behavior

  • Are social animals who enjoy the company of their pet parent and other gerbils
  • Generally stay together for life when they form breeding pairs
  • Thump their back feet to signal fear or sexual excitement
  • Chew on objects to wear down their continuously growing incisor teeth; ensure they have plenty of chew sticks or mineral chews available to help them do this
  • Are voracious chewers who should be kept in glass tanks or wire enclosures as they will often chew through plastic cages
  • Touch noses with other gerbils as a greeting
  • Have large front and hind legs, enabling them to be very skillful jumpers
  • Actively dig with their front legs and kick debris away with their back legs as they burrow
  • Are able to balance as they stand upright because they have both large hind feet and long tails
  • Will lick items in their habitats when they are thirsty
  • Will wink at you if you give them a treat to indicate pleasure or gratitude
  • Will purr by vibrating when they are comfortable, even though you might not hear this
  • Are extremely clean animals who use their teeth, claws and tongue to continually groom themselves and their habitat mates
  • Rarely bite because they have nonaggressive “fright and flight” mechanisms that are not easily provoked or stimulated
  • Unlike other small rodents, they tend to be more curious than scared
  • Are generally very docile, active and friendly
  • Are typically curious and love to explore
  • Typically have bouts of endless energy throughout the day separated by naps in between

 

Habitat

Habitat size

Gerbils need room to exercise and play. A minimum of a 20-gallon aquarium is appropriate for a pair of gerbils. It is best to provide the largest habitat possible.

Building your habitat

  • Temperature - Gerbils acclimate well to average household temperatures, not to exceed 80°F; be cautious of extreme temperature changes, and keep the habitat out of direct sunlight and drafts
  • Construction - The habitat should be glass or metal with a solid bottom so that gerbils can’t chew their way out and a tight-fitting, escape-proof lid. Enclosures should have different levels, as gerbils love to climb and explore
  • Bedding – 1 to 2" of commercially available paper-based bedding. Wood shavings are not recommended as they are indigestible if eaten and can potentially cause life-threatening obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. Pine and cedar-based products in particular should not be used as they have aromatic oils that are potentially irritating to gerbils’ respiratory tracts. Gerbils also enjoy nesting material. Commercially available nesting material or shredded paper works well
  • Décor - Habitat furniture should be wood, hard plastic or ceramic, as all furniture will be chewed on; avoid soft plastic décor that can be chewed up and swallowed. Cardboard tubes, smooth-sided exercise wheels (so they don’t injure their toes and feet), and PVC pipes are all appropriate for gerbils. Many gerbils also enjoy a hiding place within their habitats. Commercially available wood- and hay-based habitats are available for them to hide in and chew on; hard plastic hideaways are easy to disinfect but should be removed if gerbils chew on them to prevent ingestion of plastic pieces

Cleaning your habitat

Spot-clean the habitat daily, removing discarded food and droppings on perches. Thoroughly wash and dry food bowls daily. Replace substrate or habitat liner weekly or more often as needed, especially if the habitat houses more than one bird.

Spot-clean the habitat and remove soiled bedding and discarded food daily. At least once a week, thoroughly clean and disinfect the habitat and its contents:

  • Replace all bedding and wash all habitat contents with a small animal habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
  • Rinse off habitat cleaner or bleach residue thoroughly
  • Allow the habitat and décor to dry completely before returning your gerbil to the habitat

What Do Gerbils Eat

A well-balanced gerbil diet consists of:

  • High-quality gerbil lab blocks or other commercially available, nutritionally complete pelleted food for gerbils and limited amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits and Timothy or other grass hay
  • Clean, fresh water, changed daily, in a sipper bottle or a shallow bowl. Bowls should not be too deep as to allow hamsters to fall into them and get stuck. Sipper bottles should be checked regularly to ensure water flow is unobstructed
  • Do not feed chocolate, caffeine or alcohol as these are toxic to hamsters and can cause illness or death; avoid salty, sugary and fatty treats

Things to remember when feeding your gerbil:

  • Always have fresh food and water available
  • You can offer small amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits and hay daily, but limit these to 10% of your gerbil’s total daily calories
  • Vegetables and fruits not eaten within 12 hours should be discarded

Gerbil care

  • Gerbils can make good pets for families with older children who have learned to handle them properly and can assist in their care
  • Gerbils stay clean and rarely need baths but can be spot-cleaned with a damp washcloth or unscented baby wipes, if needed
  • Should be given access to a dust bath at least once a week to allow the dust to absorb oils from their skin and to keep their coats clean and dry
  • Gerbils should be gently cupped in a hand to hold or held by the scruff of the neck to restrain but should never be picked up by the tail, as this restraint can tear skin
  • Gerbil's teeth are normally yellow due to iron deposits; cleaning is not necessary
  • Consult with a veterinarian if a gerbil's teeth seem too long

Where to buy a gerbil

Gerbils are available for purchase at your local Petco Pet Care Center. Please call ahead to check availability.

Gerbil supplies

Habitat mates

Gerbils in nature are highly social colony animals and can become depressed when left alone. Ideally gerbils should be adopted in same-sex pairs. A solo gerbil won't be content unless you spend a great deal of time together.

Since gerbils are somewhat territorial, it’s best to try to keep same-sex littermates together.  Selecting two gerbils at 5 to 6 weeks old who are from the same litter tends to be a good policy when adopting a pair of furry friends. It’s much harder to try to introduce a new gerbil into a solo gerbil's habitat as they are likely to fight.

When you introduce two gerbils, do so on neutral ground to help minimize the risks of fighting. You might try a clean, deodorized habitat that has been rearranged. This can distract your first gerbil and makes them more likely to accept their new roommate. It can take several weeks for new gerbils to accept each other.

A pair of gerbils interacting can be quite entertaining Due to their social nature, they often groom, lick and snuggle together. When they are feeling energetic, they can often be seen playfully wrestling and chasing each other.

Health

Signs of a healthy gerbil

  • Active, alert and sociable
  • Eats, drinks and passes droppings regularly
  • Healthy fur without patches of hair loss
  • Clear eyes and nose
  • Breathing is unlabored
  • Walks normally
  • Note: The enamel covering a hamster’s front teeth is normally yellow and does not need to be cleaned off

Red flags (Contact your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs.)

  • Weight loss
  • Abnormal hair loss
  • Diarrhea, dirty bottom or lack of stool
  • Labored or open-mouth breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Ocular or nasal discharge
  • Skin lesions, bumps or scabs
  • Itchy skin
  • Overgrown teeth
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing, sneezing or wheezing
  • Bloody droppings

Common health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health IssueDiarrhea Symptoms or CausesLoose stool caused by poor diet, stress, gastrointestinal parasites, bacterial or viral infection, unclean housing or other illness. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian to determine cause and treatment.
Health IssueDental problems Symptoms or CausesOvergrown teeth, difficulty chewing, drooling, swelling of jaw, weight loss. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian to have teeth trimmed regularly.
Health IssueSkin infection Symptoms or CausesHair loss and/or dry, flaky, itchy skin; can be caused by external parasites (such as mites), fungal infection (ringworm) or bacterial dermatitis (inflammation). Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian for treatment; ringworm and some species of mites are contagious to people.
Health IssueTumors Symptoms or CausesAbnormal swellings or growths under the skin. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian.

FAQs

  • How long do gerbils live? Up to 5 years with proper care and nutrition.
  • What are gerbils? Gerbils are small rodents.
  • What do gerbils eat? A pelleted diet made for small rodents, plus smaller amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits and grass hay, plus fresh water daily.
  • Where do gerbils come from? They live in the deserts of Africa, Central Asia, India and the Middle East.
  • Where can you buy gerbils? Petco Pet Care Centers sell gerbils. It is recommended to call ahead to check availability.
  • How big do gerbils get? 4-5 inches long, including the tail.
  • How do you take care of a gerbil? Feed it rodent pellets, small amounts of grain, vegetables, fruits, hay, and fresh water daily, plus provide it with a glass or wire, solid-bottom, escape-proof habitat.
  • What fruits can gerbils eat? Small amounts of pear, apple, banana, strawberry, blueberry, kiwi and melon.
  • How many species of gerbils are there? There are more than 80 known species of gerbils

Additional care sheets

Notes and sources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all small animals are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, rat bite fever and Salmonella bacteria, always wash your hands before and after handling your small animal or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for small animals and should consider having a pet other than a small animal.

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about small animals and disease.

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.