All About Gerbils: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

All About Gerbils: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

Vanessa LeRoux

Experience Level: Suitable for beginners, especially children aged seven and above. However, adult supervision is recommended.
Size: Gerbils typically reach 13-15 cm.
Lifespan: Gerbils generally have a lifespan of around 2 to 4 years. Sometimes even living up to 5 years.
Behaviour: Gerbils are diurnal and are up and about during the day. Gerbils take multiple short naps throughout the day and night rather than having one long sleep period. Read to the end of the care sheet for further information on what makes a gerbil as cute as can be!
Diet: Did you know? Gerbils are omnivores.
Social Habits: Gerbils are very curious, friendly, peaceful characters who vastly prefer to live in (same-gender) groups because they can get lonely.

Shopping Checklist: What will I Need for my Gerbil?

  • Habitat: Aim for a space of at least 75 x 30 cm. Multi-level homes are a hit with these little guys! A bigger cage would be required if you would like your gerbil to have company. Considering a glass tank? Make sure it has a mesh top and offers ample ventilation.

  • Food: Stick to either pelleted plain gerbil or hamster food or a mixed variety.

  • Food Dish: Choose dishes that can be securely attached to the cage to avoid any mealtime mishaps.

  • Water Source: Bottles are great, but if you use a bowl, ensure it's heavy ceramic or fixed to the cage. Heads up: Bowls can get messy with bedding or food, so they'll need a daily clean.

  • Bedding: Go for paper bedding, wood shavings, or wood pellets. The deeper the layer, the better. Create a burrowing section by piling the paper bedding high in a corner; your gerbil is a seasoned burrower and will love you for it. Fun idea: Divide the cage floor into sections and put different substrates in each to add to your gerbil's physical and mental stimulation.

  • Fun Toys: Thinking of transport tubes? Just double-check that they're the right size for your gerbil. Toys your gerbil will like include a seesaw, seagrass balls, chew toys, cardboard tubes and tissue boxes. Add a digging box to the cage so your gerbil can do what it does best - burrow!

  • Exercise Wheel: Size matters. Ensure the wheel is spacious enough for your gerbil to stretch out fully while running. A solid wheel, free of rungs and around 15 to 20 cm diameter, is ideal.

  • Cosy Corners: Every gerbil loves a snug home and a hammock to lounge in.

  • Nesting Material: Don't forget this! They adore curling up in it. Shredded paper and Snuggle Stuff are great; just be aware that Snuggle Stuff can tangle around their feet, so keep an eye out for this. Single-ply toilet paper can also be used.

  • Treat Time: Every so often, spoil your gerbil with a treat. See the gerbil menu below.

  • Dental Care: Keep in mind that gerbils' teeth never stop growing, and they have a natural instinct to chew; gnaw stones and chew sticks, wooden blocks, or natural loofahs help keep them at the right length. Don’t forget a healthy mineral block.

  • Litter Box: A great addition for a healthy gerbil and a fresher-smelling cage.

  • Grooming Essentials: Consider a small animal bath, some bathing sand, and a tiny brush to keep your furry friend looking fabulous. Unlike some other small animals, gerbils are known for having a very low odour.

  • Nail Care: Add a rough surface to their habitat, like a clean rock or piece of wood. It helps keep their nails in check. (But remember, if their nails need trimming, it's best left to a professional.)

  • Small Animal Playpen: A playpen is an excellent way for your gerbil to spend some free time outside of the cage and to allow interaction with their human friend.

How Do I Set up a Gerbil Habitat?

  • Location Tips: Choose a spot with low humidity that maintains a cool temperature between 18-24 degrees. Place in a calm, low-activity area. And remember, no direct sunlight!

  • Bedding and Litter Basics: Lay out the bedding about 7 cm deep, giving your gerbil ample space to dig and burrow, which they love to do. Make a pile of bedding for them to burrow in. Keep an eye out for messes, spot clean when necessary, and change the bedding as per the product's guidelines.

  • Litter Box and Rock or Wood: Pop the litter box corner of the cage. Find a space for the clean rock or piece of wood to wear down their nails.

  • A Quiet Retreat: Give your gerbil a little house. It's their perfect spot for downtime, play, and maybe even a snack.

  • Dishes: Ensure your gerbil's habitat includes accessible food and water dishes that are also easy for you to reach for cleaning and refills.

  • Wheel and Toys: Add a variety of these to keep your little one busy. Gerbils have better colour vision compared to other small animals. They can see some colours and have a wider field of vision, so pick out brightly coloured toys for them.

  • Dental Essentials: Incorporate the gnaw stones and chew sticks, wooden blocks or natural loofahs into their cage to ensure those teeth stay short and healthy. Place the mineral block in the cage.

  • Cleaning Routine: Dedicate some time each week to thoroughly clean the cage. A dash of mild, unscented dishwashing liquid and a cage cleaner or a disinfectant safe for small animals like F10SC will do the trick.

The Gerbils' Menu: What, When, and How Much to Feed

Despite their willingness to try various foods, gerbils are known to be selective eaters and often pick out their favourite items from different foods. Keep an eye on what they eat to ensure they get complete nutrition. A gerbil should never live on dry food alone. Remember to introduce new foods gradually and monitor for any signs of digestive upset. Remove all fruit, veggies and protein sources after a few hours so they don’t rot.

Everyday Meal (80% Pelleted Food): This forms the staple of your gerbil's diet. Make it a habit to refresh it daily, ensuring the bowl remains about 3/4 full. They eat about one to two tablespoons per day.

Veggie Delight (15% Vegetables): Serve up fresh veggies like kale, spinach, carrots and peas every one to three days. Just a heads up: steer clear of iceberg lettuce, and remember to remove any leftovers after a few hours. Give them a large teaspoon per day.

Sweet Treats (5% Fruit & Treats): Twice a week, pamper your gerbil with treats and fresh fruits such as a slice of either pears, apples and melon once a day (no core or seeds) and try pumpkin seeds; they like them, too. Clear the fruit out after a few hours if they don't finish.

Once a week, for a twist, throw in a raw or cooked, tri-coloured pasta spiral with a spinach or tomato flavour; they find it extra tasty or add a brussel sprout or Weetbix bits. Variety is key to healthy eating. Friendly Farm Lovelies make great treats for hamsters/gerbils, no more than twice a week.

Protein Boost: Consider boiled eggs, cooked chicken, crickets, and dried mealworms. (Live mealworms for adult gerbils only unless you remove the worms' heads.) Provide just a few pieces once a week. This is a supplement which they enjoy; most of their protein will be in their pelleted food.

Hydration Station (Water): Whether you choose a bottle or a bowl, ensure your gerbil has daily access to fresh, clean water. A bowl requires daily cleaning as food and bedding tend to fall into them. A good scrub with an animal-safe disinfectant for the bottle once a week is required.

Food Hoarders: Gerbils tend to hoard food in hidden spots in their cages, mimicking their natural behaviour of storing food in burrows. Check their cage of hidden leftovers; they may grow stale or go off.

Switching Brands: When changing to a different food, it is essential to ‘wean’ the gerbil onto it by mixing old with new and gradually decreasing the old brand to avoid upsetting the tummy with food he has not had before.

Food Storage: Store food in a tightly sealed container in your fridge or freezer to maintain freshness for a lot longer.

Everyday Meal (80% Pelleted Food) Refresh daily 1-2 Tablespoon, keep bowl 3/4 full
Veggie Delight (15% Vegetables) Every 1 to 3 days 1 Large teaspoon, variety is key
Sweet Treats (5% Fruit & Treats) Twice a week 1 Slice for essential nutrients
Protein Boost 1 to 3 times a week Egg, chicken, dried mealworms
Water Refresh daily Check regularly, keep clean

Safety First for You and Your Gerbil

To prevent germs, wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water before and after spending time with your gerbil or its cage. Make sure to dry your hands well, too.

Gerbils are easy to handle and do not bite or scratch much at all unless they're afraid. Gerbils have their own charming way of "talking" to both their human pals and fellow gerbils. When they want to ward off others or sound an alarm, they'll give a little squeak or do rapid thumping of their hind legs. Feeling thrilled? They'll let out an excited 'yip'. And when they're just feeling all cosy and content, they might purr away.

For those with wire-level cages, it's a thoughtful idea to lay down some cardboard. This provides a protective layer for their tiny paws and doubles as a delightful chew toy, ensuring they stay entertained and their teeth remain healthy.

From First Touch to Daily Play: Perfecting Your Gerbil Handling Skills

  • Acclimatisation Period: Give your gerbil a few days to settle in before trying to handle them.

  • Approach with care: Allow your gerbil to sniff and hear you open the cage. Once they're aware of you, they are generally docile and friendly.

  • Gentle Handling: Scoop them up gently from underneath rather than grabbing from above to reduce stress. They are generally easy to handle and should be socialised from a young age.

  • Safety First: Always handle your gerbil over a low surface. This minimises the risk of falls.

  • High Jumpers: Despite their small size, gerbils are excellent jumpers and can jump up to 30 cm in the air when excited or startled. Gerbils are known for their agility and quick reflexes, which make them excellent at escaping their enclosures, so watch out!

  • Daily Adventures: Allow your gerbil some out-of-cage time every day, but ensure it's supervised in a safe area. If you put them in a playpen, be sure to provide shade and water.

Gerbil Care Essentials: Mastering Play, Grooming and Beyond

Litter-Box Training: Did you know? Gerbils often prefer to 'do their business' in the same spot. Place the litter box in that place, add some sand or chinchilla dust and your gerbil will use it. Clean the litter box with white vinegar and dishwashing liquid.
Playtime Must-Haves: Keep your gerbil entertained and healthy with a mix of toys, tunnels, hideouts, and chewable items. They love variety and can see in colour, so keep those toys brightly coloured.
Fast Learners: Gerbils can quickly learn simple tasks and tricks, making them quite trainable for small animal species.
Long Memory: Gerbils have a surprisingly good memory for small animals. They can recognise the scent of their humans and other gerbils even after extended periods of separation.
Treat Time: Want to bond and build trust? Offer treats (in moderation), and let your gerbil take them from your hand.
Bathing Basics: Gerbils groom themselves, so no water baths are needed. Instead, they offer natural bathing sand for their cleaning routines. And if you're brushing them, always be gentle. If you've got more than one gerbil, they will often groom each other, which is a social behaviour that strengthens bonds between them.
Nail Care: Add a rough surface, like a clean rock or piece of wood, to their habitat. It helps keep their nails in check. But remember, if their nails need trimming, it's best left to a professional.

Gerbil Health Checklist: When to Call Your Vet

Gerbils have a lower fatality rate for common diseases than other small animals, making them relatively hardy pets. A good rule of thumb is to be aware of any changes in your gerbil's condition or behaviour. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for a good prognosis. It’s best to find a gerbil-savvy vet when you start out on your new gerbil adventure. Here is a list of potential illnesses that gerbils experience:

  • Eyes: Redness, discharge, and frequent blinking

  • Wheezing or sneezing: discharge from eyes, nose or mouth

  • Overgrown front teeth, difficulty eating and drooling

  • Itching, fur loss, skin inflammation and sores on the feet

  • Lethargy

  • Swelling or lumps

  • Hunched posture and wet or matted fur around the tail

  • Weight loss: not eating or drinking normally

  • Diarrhea or discoloured droppings or loss of appetite.

  • Ear infection: Causes loss of balance, head tilting, discharge and odour, redness or swelling and scratching of the ear. Lethargy and loss of appetite occur as well.

  • Permanently inflated cheek pouches

Fun Facts About Your Gerbil

Moonwalkers: When gerbils are excited or trying to attract a mate, they perform a unique "stilt walking" or "moonwalking" behaviour, moving backwards while marking their territory with their scent gland.
Incredible Jumpers: Gerbils can jump up to 30 cm in the air when they are excited or startled, a behaviour known as "popcorning." This would be so much fun to see!
Longevity Record Holders: Among small rodents, gerbils are known for their longer lifespan, with some living up to 5 years or more under proper care.
Dust Bath Enthusiasts: Gerbils love to take dust baths, which help them keep their fur clean and free of oils. Seeing them rolling and flipping in the dust is a delightful sight!
Robust Immune System: Gerbils are known for having a robust immune system and are less prone to illnesses compared to other small pets. This makes them a suitable choice for those looking for a lower-maintenance pet.

Holistic Gerbil Care: Balancing Diet, Environment, and Interaction

Caring for gerbils involves understanding their unique needs, such as providing a spacious cage or aquarium filled with a thick layer of bedding for burrowing and adding wooden toys and tunnels for mental stimulation. These tiny creatures are social animals that thrive in pairs or small groups of the same sex, so offering them companionship is essential to prevent loneliness. A well-designed habitat with ample space for exploration and burrowing activities is crucial for their physical and mental well-being.

When it comes to diet, gerbils require a balanced mix of pellets, fruits, and fresh vegetables, supplemented occasionally with protein sources like mealworms. Regular veterinary check-ups are vital, especially since gerbils are prone to specific health issues like dental problems and respiratory infections. Building a strong bond with your gerbil involves more than just meeting its basic needs; it requires time, patience, and trust. Frequent, gentle handling from a young age can help socialise your gerbil, making it more comfortable around you and solidifying your relationship with your small, furry friend.