Gerbils
Small Pets
 

Gerbils


Gerbil information

There are over 100 gerbil species found in Africa and Asia, but the one most commonly seen in pet shops is the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), also known as the Clawed Jird. It is affectionately referred to as the “Warrior with Claws” and is native to eastern Mongolia. European explorers noticed the animal as early as 1867, but it would take almost a century before the Mongolian gerbil became a common pet in Europe and North America. The first specimens brought to the United States were actually not kept as pets; they were lab animals.   

A Gerbil is a suitable choice if you want a small and gentle pet that sleeps during the night and is active during the day. Gerbils do not make a lot of noise and they are easy to care for. Gerbils can be very shy at first and it is important not to stress the animal. Let it grow accustomed to you and your family gradually. Once you have earned its trust, it will become a highly affectionate and cuddly pet. You don’t have to purchase a baby gerbil to make it bond to you; adult gerbils will bond just as strongly to kind owners. Males and females make equally good pets.  

An adult Mongolian gerbil weighs around 60 grams (2 oz) and looks plumper than a mouse.
It has small ears and a long tail, and unlike the tail of a rat, the gerbil tail is fully furred and has a soft tuft at the end. This animal is an excellent jumper with long hind legs that almost gives it a kangaroo-like appearance. Gerbils have excellent hearing and a well developed sense of smell. Ideally place the gerbil cage in a quite part of your home. Don’t let other pets, e.g. cats and dogs, have access to the area near the cage because the gerbil will perceive them as predators and the stress of not being able to escape can cause a stroke.

Gerbils taxonomy

 

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Mammalia
Order:           Rodentia
Family:          Muridae
Subfamily:    Gerbillinae

Gerbil care

Gerbils are a good choice if you want a gentle and friendly pet that is easy to care for and doesn’t require a lot of space. Gerbils can be housed in comparatively small cages, provided that they are given opportunity to exercise on a daily basis, e.g. by being let out into a play pen.

Gerbils are very social creatures and should therefore be kept in pairs or groups, since it is difficult for a human keeper to replace the interaction and grooming that will get from members of their own species. It can be difficult to introduce older gerbils to each other, so getting two or several relatives from the same colony is common. Do not house male and female gerbils together unless you plan on breeding them.  

The smallest recommended cage for two gerbils is 22" (56 cm) long, 12" ((30 cm) wide, and 12" (30 cm) deep. The gerbils will choose one part of the cage as toilet area and pick two other ones for resting and eating respectively. Thanks to this habit, it is very easy to keep the cage clean. Gerbils like to have a hide box placed in their nesting area, since that make them feel safer.

The bedding, e.g. aspen wood shavings, should be spread at least 5 cm (2 in) thick since gerbils love to burrow. Plastic tubes can be included in the set up to give the gerbil access to even larger “burrows”. Gerbils also like cages where they can climb around to different levels.

It is a good idea to get several toys and other interesting stuff for the gerbil to investigate and rotate them so that there is always something new to explore in the cage. “Houses” (boxes) with several entrance holes seem to be extremely interesting. Many gerbils like to run in an exercise wheel, and there are also special hamster balls that you can purchase in pet stores. Inside a hamster ball, your gerbil can run around in a room without injuring itself or hiding somewhere hard to find.

Gerbils prefer the company of family members or gerbils to which they have been introduced at a young age. If you wish to introduce two adult gerbils to each other, be prepared to devote some time to the process, otherwise they might fight each other to the death. The safest course of action is to divide a cage into two separate areas and place one gerbil in each. Twice a day, let them swap territory with each other to get used to each others scents. After a week or two, place them together in a new clean cage that doesn’t smell of any of them. Keep an eye on them and be ready to separate them if they risk injuring each other.  

Feeding Gerbils

Gerbils are omnivore and feed on seeds and insects in the wild. In captivity, you can use gerbil pellets as a base and supplement with small amounts of fresh foods like seeds, vegetables and fruits. Hay is also beneficial. Seeds can be really rich in fat and calories and should therefore only be served sparingly. If you want to, you can of course serve your gerbils treats in the form of small insects as well to make the diet more similar to the natural diet of gerbils. Mealworms are easy to cultivate at home and they are also available in most pet stores.

Unless you use pellets that include all necessary salts and minerals, add a salt/mineral wheel to the cage.

It is important to provide gerbils with suitable items for chewing, such as “chewy” foods and toys. Pet stores sell chew sticks suitable for gerbils. Gerbil teeth grow continuously throughout their lives.

Gerbils should always have access to fresh water.  

Breeding Gerbils

Gerbils reach sexual maturity at a very young age, usually around week 7 or 8. At this stage, they also become easy to sex. If you lift up the rear-end by the base of the tail and see a bulge, you are holding a male gerbil. Another clear indication of sex is the eight nipples present on the belly of the female.

Gerbils are very active breeders and will mate repeatedly during a single day. They generally pair for life. Do not house male and female gerbils together if you don’t wish to breed them.

The gestation period is normally 24-26 days, but if the female is already caring for another litter the gestation period can be prolonged and last up to 43 days. A batch normally consists of 5-6 pups but some batches comprise over 10 pups.

Gerbil pups are born with closed eyes that remain shut until the pups reach an age of roughly three weeks. At this point, they will also begin eating solid foods and after an additional 1-2 weeks they will no longer depend on their parents. They pups do however prefer to stay with their mother until they are at least six weeks old.

When breeding gerbils, the safest course of action is to leave the mother alone with her babies for a few days after the birth, since some mothers become highly stressed if a human is there poking around. This is true even for gerbils that normally love being handled and cared for by their human keeper. A stressed mother may eat her offspring. Also keep in mind that the mother needs extra nutrition while nursing. You can for instance give her extra mealworms and seeds. Make sure she gets enough calcium.

It is generally not a good idea to let the male stay with the female right after the birth because she can become pregnant immediately after giving birth and having another batch right away can naturally be burdensome for her. When you re-introduce the male, the female might not recognize him at first so keep an eye on them. A commonly used method is to divide the cage into two areas as described above. Once the male has been re-introduced, he will take part in the rearing of the young ones.

Gerbil Health

Gerbils are quite sturdy animals and most health problems can be prevented with the right care and diet. Older gerbils can develop tumours.

Common signs of illness in gerbils are lethargy, hunched back, tilted head, loss of appetite, changed faeces, ruffled fur, excessive scratching, drooling, and laboured breathing. 

Gerbils can become infested with parasites such as mites and internal worms. Compared to many other small rodents commonly kept as pets, the gerbil is remarkably resilient towards respiratory disease. Never pick up a gerbil by the tail, as this can cause skin tearing.
  

Gerbil Facts

Gerbil fact # 1
Wild gerbils sport a fur colour known as agouti, which is a combination of white, black and brown. Today, many other colours and patterns have been selectively bred for the pet trade, such as lilac, nutmeg, golden/cream, black, white, and albino. You can get single colour as well as multicoloured (pied) gerbils, included spotted ones.

Gerbil fact # 2
The name Meriones unguiculatus means “Clawed Warrior”. Meriones is the Greek word for warrior, while unguiculatus means “with claws” in Latin.

Gerbil fact # 3
Some countries, states and municipalities prohibit the keeping of gerbils or require you to get a license. There are also regions where you need a license to breed gerbils. Always check local regulations before getting a gerbil.

Gerbil fact # 4
If your Gerbil is running around in a room and you need to catch it, one easy method is to simply place a tube on the floor. Gerbils are very curious and like to burrow in tubes, so within short your little fellow will most likely stop running around and start exploring the tube instead. Once it is safely inside, you just scope up the tube and place the gerbil in its cage.

Gerbil fact # 5
If a gerbil starts thumping its hind feet, it means that it is scared.

Gerbil lifespan

The average gerbil lifespan is 3-4 years.


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