Caring for your gerbil
Gerbils are fascinating pets and will fit in well with most families. They are inquisitive, rarely bite and are found in many colours. There are about 90 species, but the Mongolian gerbil is the one kept as a pet. They are sometimes mistaken for mice or rats, but they actually look and behave differently. Gerbils have long, hairy tails and, as you’ll find out, are serious diggers!
Because gerbils originate from desert and dry grassland areas they do not produce much urine and waste, so it’s fairly easy to keep their environment clean and free from smells. They are very sociable and should not be kept alone. However, they breed from three months old and can produce a litter of four to ten babies every 24 days, so it’s best to keep pairs or small groups of the same sex.
Only buy gerbils from a knowledgeable breeder or good pet shop where the assistants know how to care for them and are able to handle the gerbils confidently. They should be in clean accommodation of ample size (see right) with food and fresh water available. Cages should also have beds and bedding. Babies should not be sold until they are at least five to six weeks old.
Males become sexually mature at 70 to 80 days old and females at 86 to 109 days. Females can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth, so it’s important that males and females are kept separate in pet shops. The staff in the shop should be able to show you how to tell the difference between males and females. If staff aren’t sure, you may end up with a pregnant gerbil.
Gerbil cages and living spaces
In the wild, gerbils live in underground tunnels up to 3m long with several entries and chambers. The best way to mimic this natural habitat and keep them happy is to house them in a large tank or old aquarium with a secure wire lid and plenty of material for them to dig and tunnel into. Wire cages are unsuitable because the bedding will be kicked out. You can also get gerbilariums or tanks with cage additions which are ideal for this type of pet.
Two gerbils need a minimum floor surface of 40cm x 75cm, by at least 30cm tall because they are such good jumpers. Keep the tank or aquarium away from draughts and direct sunlight or heat. As these little animals are active during the evening – and occasionally during the day – you may not want to keep their tank in a bedroom. You are not likely to disturb them, but they may disturb you!
Gerbils need a thick layer of dust- extracted bedding to dig into. Organic soil or peat are great natural beddings for your gerbil along with meadow or Timothy hay, plus shredded paper for nesting. Don’t use fluffy material as this can wrap around gerbils’ limbs and injure them. Gerbils also like a nest box – but not made of wood or plastic, which they’ll chew. A clay flowerpot cut in half makes a good sleeping area. A dust bath of chinchilla sand (available from most pet shops) should be provided so the gerbil can keep its coat clean and in good condition.
What food do gerbils like?
Most gerbil owners like to feed commercial mixes as the basis of their pets’ diet but they should also be given fresh vegetables and fruit. Earthenware or stainless steel feed bowls should be used. Don’t worry about them burying their feed bowl under their bedding, as it’s natural for them to store and hoard food.
Gerbils enjoy apples, carrots, broccoli, sprouts and cauliflower. Lettuce can be given occasionally but only in very small amounts. Don’t feed potatoes, rhubarb or tomato leaves as these are poisonous. Also ensure your gerbils have a constant supply of fresh water. This should be provided in a free-access water bottle fixed inside the tank because water bowls will be tipped over and buried.