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Gerbils

Gerbils as pets

  • Gerbil facts you need to know
  • Which breed?
  • Handling your gerbil

Gerbils are inquisitive and enjoy human company which has made them popular pets for older children.  They are entertaining, lively little creatures, easy to care for and with regular handling they become very tame.  There are over 90 different species of Gerbil but the Mongolian Gerbil (sometimes called the Clawed Jird) is the favourite type to keep as a pet.  Mongolian Gerbils were first discovered in 1866 by a French biologist and come from the Mongolian Desert in Northern China and Russia.

Gerbils are desert animals that have adapted live in arid hot conditions and on dry grassy sandy steppes.  They are typically between 6 – 12 inches long (15 - 30cm) and their tail makes up approximately one half of their total length. There are larger species – the Great Gerbil, originally native to Turkmenistan, can grow to more than 16 inches (40 cm) in length.  On average a pet gerbil lives between 2 – 5 years but different species such as the Shaw's Jird can live longer, up to 7 years.  

Gerbil facts you need to know

In their wild habitat gerbils live in a complex system of tunnels and burrows where they can take shelter from the intense daytime heat and cold at night when the temperature drops suddenly.  Their burrows also protect them from predators like birds of prey or snakes.  

  • Gerbils have long legs and can leap as high as 1½ feet (45 cm) to escape from predators.  When gerbils are excited or stressed they use their long hind legs to thump the ground.  Their furry tails help them to maintain balance and the fur acts as a sunscreen from the harsh desert sun and also keeps them warm during cold nights.
  • Gerbils live in colonies in their underground tunnels and should not be kept alone as pets.  They are very social animals and are miserable if kept on their own.  It's best to keep a small group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age.  A group that has been brought up together will sleep in piles, groom one another, play and chase each other around.
  • Gerbils are clean and very active little creatures who keep themselves and their cage (called a gerbilarium) spick and span.  They love to dig and exercise so remember to provide lots of deep substrate (flooring material), tunnels and some toys such as a solid wheel (without spokes so they don't get their tails stuck!) to keep them healthy and fit.
  • View our Gerbils Products section for our range of gerbil cages and toys

Which breed?

There are over 90 different species of gerbil.  Jirds are members of the same family and just to confuse matters some gerbils are actually jirds!  They are very similar animals and are very closely related.  Different types of gerbils and jirds can be found in deserts and steppes from Central Asia to Africa.

Mongolian Gerbil

Mongolian Gerbils (also known as Clawed Jirds and Desert Rats) come from the Mongolian Desert.  They live on average 3 - 5 years and are about 7 – 8 inches (20 cm) long including body and tail. These are sociable gerbils and should be kept in groups that have been raised together from a young age. Mongolian Gerbils are the most likely species you will have as a pet, being widely available, friendly and easy to tame.

  • These gerbils have over 20 different coat colours including:  golden agouti, grey agouti, slate, cream, black, argente golden and lilac.  Patterns are white spotted, pied, mottled, colour point, siamese, burmese schimmel and himalayan.  

Shaw's Jird

The Shaw's Jird is twice the size of a Mongolian Gerbil and is about the same size as a pet rat. Males can easily grow to 14 inches (35 cm) or more in length. The tail is usually half the overall length. These jirds tend to live between 6 – 7 years.  They originate from the arid areas of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Shaw's Jirds make good pets, they enjoy human company and as they are bigger they are easier to handle.

  • Shaw's Jirds usually have darker colouring than their gerbil cousins, a less tufty tail and larger ears.  Their colouration is agouti which is a sandy grey but this can vary a lot in intensity so some appear more orange or grey than others.  Some Shaw's Jirds have a small white spot on their forehead.
  • Females are very territorial and must be housed by themselves. In the wild they would only ever meet with another jird to mate or defend their territory.  Male jirds enjoy company and are best kept in pairs or small groups that have been raised together from a young age.

Pallid Gerbil

Pallid Gerbils come from the coastal dunes of the Western Mediterranean Coastal Desert in north western Egypt. They are smaller than Mongolian Gerbils but have the same life span of around 5 years.  They make good pets but can be difficult to catch!  Pallid Gerbils are best kept in small same-sex groups or pairs.

  • Pallid Gerbils are lighter than agouti coloured Mongolian Gerbils. Their upper coat is a pale orange brown and their belly is a bright white.  They are slender creatures with big eyes that have adapted to see well in the desert dusk.  

Fat-Tailed Gerbil

Fat-tailed Gerbils (also known as the Duprasi Gerbil) also make popular pets as they are quite docile and enjoy being handled.  They come from the Northern Sahara (North-western Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria).  These little gerbils are similar in appearance to hamsters, their body shape being more rounded and having short legs compared to other gerbils.  Their body length is about 4 inches (10 cm) and their tails are 2 inches (5 cm) long.  Their life span is between 5 – 8 years.  

  • They have soft, fluffy coats and a short, fat tail shaped a little like a club (which they use to store fat in, a bit like a camel's hump).  Fat-Tailed Gerbils have a triangular shaped face, with large black eyes. Their coat colours can vary from pale apricot, to grey, through to a buff brown. The belly is clear white.  They should be housed separately as they will fight of kept in pairs or groups.

Handling your gerbil

When you bring your gerbil home leave them for a day or two before handling so that they can get used to their new home.  

  • Before you start to handle your gerbil let them get used to your voice.  Then introduce your hand so they can become used to your smell.
  • Gerbils prefer to climb or sit on you rather than be grasped. They are very friendly and will usually just walk onto your hand.
  • Pick your gerbil up by cupping one hand under them and one hand over them to stop them from jumping off.
  • Handle your gerbil over a table or close to the floor in case they wriggle or jump out of your hands.  
  • Never pick your gerbil up by the tail, this is extremely painful for your gerbil and will cause the skin to tear off at the base of their tail.
  • Handle your gerbil once a day and they will soon become tame and friendly.


Getting a new Gerbil?

  • Check list
  • Settling in your gerbil

We have a great guide to help you make bringing your gerbil home stress free and smooth with some handy tips for you to help settle your gerbil in to their new life happily.  Our check list below will ensure that you have everything for your new gerbil's arrival.

Check List

  • Gerbilarium (gerbil cage)
  • Nest House
  • Bedding / nesting material
  • Substrate / flooring material
  • Gerbil food
  • Feeding bowl
  • Water bottle
  • Gerbil hygiene products
  • Mineral stone
  • Exercise wheel
  • Tubes and toys
  • Gnawing sticks / treats
  • View our Gerbil Products section for our wide range of gerbilariums, nest houses, bedding, food and toys
  • Visit our Gerbil Housing section to learn more about gerbilariums, nesting, bedding, toys and exercise
  • Visit our Gerbil Feeding section to find out about what foods your gerbil likes to eat
     

Settling in your gerbil

Once you have brought your gerbil home it's best to leave them alone for a day or so to settle in.  Your gerbil needs this quiet time to adjust to their new surroundings and calm down after travelling.

  • Before you start to handle your gerbil let them get used to your voice.  Then introduce your hand so they can become used to your smell.  Your gerbil may come over and sniff or rub against it.  Try stroking your gerbil very slowly and gently.  Avoid making any sudden movements.
  • Gerbils prefer to climb or sit on you rather than be grasped. They are very friendly and will usually just walk onto your hand.
  • Pick your gerbil up by cupping one hand under them and one hand over them to stop them from jumping off.
  • Handle your gerbil over a table or close to the floor in case they wriggle or jump out of your hands.  Sitting on the floor is a good idea as if your gerbil does try to jump they will fall into your lap.
  • Never pick your gerbil up by the tail, this is extremely painful for your gerbil and will cause the skin to tear off at the base of their tail.
  • Handle your gerbil once a day and they will soon become tame and friendly.

Feeding your Gerbil

  • What do gerbils eat?
  • Muesli
  • Treats
  • Water
  • Greens
  • Root Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Grass and Hay
  • Dangerous Foods

Your gerbil will need a balanced diet to keep them happy and healthy and we have a useful guide to help you choose the best food available for your gerbil.

What do gerbils eat?

Gerbils in the wild are omnivores – just like us - which means that they need both meat and vegetables in their diet.  In the wild gerbils live on a diet of seeds, nuts, berries, worms, grubs, grasses, green leaves and insects.  

  • You can feed your gerbil muesli daily.   
  • You can also offer very small amounts of greens, fruit, vegetables, seeds or the occasional cricket.  Do not feed your gerbil too much fresh food as this can cause tummy upsets and diarrhea.
  • Feed your gerbil at the same time each day and you will soon find that they come out to welcome you.  
  • Food should be placed in heavy ceramic or plastic shallow bowls that will not tip over.   Remove any food that is no longer fresh each day.
  • Always introduce new foods to your gerbil gradually over a period of 10 days.
  • View our Gerbil Products section for a selection of nutritious muesli and treat

Muesli

Dry gerbil muesli will provide all the minerals, vitamins, fibre and nutrients required and is also clean and hygienic. These dry foods contain a mixture of pumpkin seeds, millet, grass pellets, peanuts, sugar beet pellets, maize, flaked oats, peas, toasted soya, wheat, sunflower seeds, dried apple, banana, apricot and carrot.     Dried foods also help to keep your gerbil's teeth trim.

View our Gerbil Products section for a selection of nutritious muesli and treats

Treats

Gerbils are very fond of sunflower, linseed and pumpkin seeds and they also adore millet.   Sunflower seeds are very fattening so don't feed too many as your gerbil could become obese.  

Treats in the form of mineral blocks, fruit and bark bites are great for chewing on and help your gerbil's teeth stay in good shape.  There are also forage mixes of herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables available as healthy snacks to give as a treat.
View our Gerbil Products section for a selection of nutritious muesli and treats

Water

Always provide fresh clean drinking water for your gerbil and check the supply each day.  Water bottles should be fitted to the cage at the right height for your gerbil to reach the spout.  Water bowls are easily fouled and gerbils can become wet if they get in them which can lead to illness.

View our Gerbil Products section for a selection of water bottles and feeding accessories

Greens

Always feed greens (and any new foods) to your gerbil gradually and in very small amounts as gerbils can get stomach upsets and diarrhea from eating too many fresh greens.   Cabbage, celery, and lettuce contain too much water for their volume and can have a dangerous laxative effect on gerbils so if you are using these as food only feed a tiny amount.

Make sure any greens have been washed before you feed them to your gerbil.
Green leafy plants recommended include: dandelion leaves (and flowers), kale, chard, chickweed, clover, broccoli leaves, stems and florets, green beans, endive, radicchio, chicory, and spinach. 

Root Vegetables

Root vegetables can be fed - in very small amounts - such as carrot, parsnip and turnip.  Potatoes should be avoided.

Fruit

Fruit can be fed in very small amounts to gerbils but do not feed citrus fruits such as oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes and grapefruit as they are too acidic.

  • Recommended fruits are:  apple (remove pips), pear, banana, blackberry, cherry (remove stone), peach (remove stone), plum (remove stone), raspberry and strawberry. 

Grass and Hay

Grass and hay can be fed in very small amounts to your gerbil and there are a wide selection of hays and grasses available in store that come in the form of treats.  These are mixed with herbs, fruit and clover.   You may find that rather than eat their hay your gerbil will prefer to make a nest with it!

  • Don't feed your gerbil lawnmower clippings as these can upset your gerbil's digestive system and make them ill.  Be careful if you give your gerbil fresh handfuls of meadow grass as this could contain buttercups which are poisonous.  
  • View our Gerbil Product section for a selection of nutritious hays and grasses for gerbils

Dangerous Foods

  • Never feed your gerbil chocolate as it is toxic to most animals.
  • Gerbils are lactose intolerant and can not digest milk.
  • Toxic foods include:  potatoes, kidney beans, parsley, rhubarb, tomato and avocado.
  • Garlic, onion, leeks and chives are dangerous and can cause haemolytic anaemia.
  • Grapes and raisins can contribute to acute kidney failure.

Housing your Gerbil​

  • Your gerbilarium
  • How many gerbils?
  • Cosy and comfortable
  • Playtime
  • Cleaning

Gerbils are very active little creatures and like lots of space to exercise in – so the bigger their home is, the better!  

  • Gerbils are vulnerable to extremes of temperature and should be housed indoors.  In the wild if the temperature suddenly drops below 10°C and the food supply is scarce some gerbils will hibernate to try to survive. The ideal temperature for Gerbils to live happily in is between 20 – 25°C.
  • Place your gerbilarium (gerbil cage) home away from direct sunlight as gerbils can't sweat like humans and succumb to heat stroke very quickly.

Your gerbilarium

Gerbils love to dig and in the wild they live in complex systems of burrows and tunnels so they need a special cage called a gerbilarium.  A gerbilarium is a two tiered home with a wire cage on top of a plastic tank filled with a deep layer of 6 inches (15 cm) of substrate (flooring material).  The two levels are connected by ladders which the gerbils enjoy climbing.  The cage can be unclipped from the base so it is easy to get your gerbils out for playtime and to clean the cage.

Some gerbilariums are modular units which can be extended into extra compartments and tunnels. Petstop has a wide variety of gerbilariums available that will house up to 4 gerbils.
View our Gerbil Products section for a selection of gerbilariums and  gerbil housing and accessories


How many gerbils?

It depends on the type of gerbil that you have as a pet as to whether you keep them in a group or singly.  If you are not sure how many gerbils you can house together please ask our trained staff who will be happy to give you all the advice you need.

  • Mongolian Gerbils are the gerbil that is most often kept as a pet.  They live in colonies in their underground tunnels and should not be kept singly.  It's best to keep a small group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age. If you keep a pair of Mongolian Gerbils and one dies it can be very difficult to introduce a new gerbil, especially if the gerbil is mature (older than 8 - 10 weeks of age).  They are extremely territorial and would fight an intruder to the death.
  • Pallid Gerbils are best kept in small same-sex groups or pairs.
  • Fat-Tailed Gerbils should be housed separately as they will fight of kept in pairs or groups.
  • The Shaw's Jird is from the same family as gerbils but the females are very territorial and must be housed by themselves. In the wild they would only ever meet with another jird to mate or defend their territory.  Male jirds enjoy company and are best kept in pairs or small groups that have been raised together from a young age.
  • View our Gerbils As Pets Advice to learn more about different types of gerbils

Cosy and Comfortable

The gerbilarium should contain a nesting house large enough to fit your gerbil and large enough to accommodate more than one gerbil if you have a group – gerbils like to sleep cuddled up together in a heap! 

  • Soft, safe and cosy nesting material and bedding are available for your gerbil to curl up in.  Gerbils particularly like to shred their nesting material and any house needs to be strong and durable as gerbils enjoy gnawing and chewing too!  
  • Never use wool or any other type of fabric for nesting material as the fibres can be ingested and become lodged in the gerbil's gut.
  • Wood shavings, wood-based litter or fine peat can be used as substrate (floor material) and this should be 6 inches (15 cm) deep so that your gerbils can burrow.  You can also insert plastic tunnels into the substrate to make ready-made burrows for your gerbils.
  • Visit our  Gerbil Products section for a wide range of nest houses, bedding and substrates​

Playtime

Tubes and tunnels are great for encouraging your gerbil's natural burrowing behaviour and they happily play hide and seek or chase games in them.

  • Gerbils also enjoy running in exercise wheels and wheels have been specially designed for gerbils that are solid with no gaps between the spokes so that they don't trap their tails.
  • You can add ladders, ramps and climbing frames for your gerbil to play on and there are also sea-saws and mazes to keep your gerbil amused and happy.
  • Chewing is a gerbil's favourite pastime so provide lots of wooden toys, blocks and puzzle toys for your gerbil to gnaw on.  Gnawing will also help to keep your gerbil's teeth trim.
  • Visit our Gerbil Products section for a wide range of gerbil exercise wheels, boredom breakers and toys

Cleaning

Your gerbilarium should be cleaned with a pet-safe disinfectant and the substrate changed every two weeks.  Gerbils are very clean animals and tend to use one specific area of their home for their toilet which will need to be cleaned more frequently. 

  • As gerbils come from arid desert areas, water is scarce and gerbils use as much water as their bodies can. This means that the amount that they excrete is comparatively less than many other similar sized animals.
  • There are gerbil litter trays available which take advantage of your gerbil's natural instinct to go to the toilet in one area.
  • View our Gerbil Products section for a range of gerbil hygiene and cleaning products

Keeping your Gerbil Healthy​

  • General health care
  • Common health problems

General health care

You can tell if your gerbil is feeling poorly by their behaviour.  If you notice a change in their behaviour or if they are not eating and drinking this could be a sign that they are ill.  

Teeth - Gerbils do not have dental problems very often but their teeth should be checked to make sure they are not over grown or uneven. A healthy gerbil's teeth are yellow, not white!  Your gerbil will keep their teeth trim by gnawing and chewing so make sure you provide gnawing toys to help wear their teeth down.  If your gerbil does suffer from overgrown teeth make an appointment with your vet to have their teeth trimmed.

Nose - Your gerbil's nose shouldn't be crusty or runny.  Gerbils can catch colds very easily so a runny nose could be a sign of a cold or respiratory infection.  Gerbils can catch colds from humans, so avoid handling your gerbil if you have one.  If you are concerned that your gerbil is not recovering from their cold should contact your vet.

If your gerbil has a scabby nose this caused either by poor quality wood shavings used as substrate (flooring material) which cut your gerbil's nose when they dig, or from your gerbil chewing inappropriate things out of boredom.  To avoid this happening, keep the burrowing material in the tank beneath their cage nice and soft and make sure your gerbils have plenty of toys.

Eyes - Your gerbil's eyes should be bright and clear, with no signs of runniness, redness, swelling or soreness.  Some gerbils can develop eye infections caused by dust and bedding that they kick about in their cage.  Eye gels are available to help treat this problem and you should contact your vet for anti-inflammatory and antibiotic treatments.

Claws - Gerbil's claws can become over grown.  Long claws can impede your gerbil's movement, cause pain and risk getting caught or pulled out.  If you are worried about your gerbil's claws being too long contact your vet to have them trimmed.

Skin, coat and tail - Loss of fur, inflamed skin or flakiness can be caused by allergies or mites. It is important to seek your vet's advice to rule out other illnesses in case there is an underlying cause for your gerbil's poor skin and coat condition.

  • Gerbils are usually free of parasites, but occasionally they can suffer from mites.  Signs of mites are scratching, brown matter in the ears, bald patches on the coat and irritated broken skin.  
  • Our qualified staff at Petstop are licensed to sell a full range of anti-parasitic treatments, which you would normally find at your veterinary clinic.
  • Hairless patches on your gerbil's tail can be an indication of over-grooming, which is a sign of boredom so ensure your gerbil has plenty of toys to keep them occupied.
  • If you have gerbils living in pairs or colonies and their skin, coat or tail are in bad condition you should check them all over for any signs of injury caused by fighting or aggressive behaviour.  Small bites should heal well but more serious injuries will require a vet's assistance.
  • Visit our Gerbil Products section for a selection of Treatments for Mites

Scent gland – gerbils have a scent gland on their underside which is a small, bald patch that they rub against things to mark them with scent. Males can be at risk from tumours in the scent gland, so feel gently to see if there are any lumps. Tumours grow very quickly, but can easily be removed by your vet if they're found early enough.

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Common health problems

Diarrhea - Diarrhea can result from a number of infections or from changes in diet like eating too much of foods that are high in water, such as fruit and vegetables.

Gerbils with diarrhea can quickly become dehydrated, so it's important that they drink plenty of water. Stop feeding fresh foods, and don't offer them again until the droppings are back to normal.
If your gerbil's diarrhea does not stop quickly or the conditions get worse you should contact your vet for treatment.

Tyzzers Disease – a nasty disease that causes the infection Clostridium piliforme, which can be fatal.  Symptoms include watery diarrhea, loss of appetite, dehydration, hunched posture due to abdominal pain, coat in poor condition and depression.  It is spread when gerbils eat contaminated food or water.  If you think your gerbil has Tyzzers Disease contact your vet immediately.