Here’s how to care for your busy, burrowing, tunnel-digging buddies—otherwise known as Meriones unguiculatus.
Gerbils are native to many parts of the world, but the type of gerbil commonly kept as a pet is the Mongolian. These busy little rodents generally grow to about four inches, with a tail of the same length. Pet gerbils are available in a variety of colors, although they usually have white fur on their bellies. If well cared for, gerbils usually live for three to four years.
All gerbils are very frisky, and can easily escape from a cage that isn’t closed securely. Their eyesight isn’t very good, so you’ll need to take extra care they don’t fall or otherwise hurt themselves when they are exercising outside the cage. Their hearing and sense of smell, however, are both very acute.
The ASPCA heartily recommends gerbils as pets for older children who have mastered proper handling techniques. These gentle critters are hearty and seldom bite. And unlike hamsters, Mongolian gerbils are active during the day, which fits in well with a child’s schedule.
When you first get your pet, you’ll need to spend about $35 for a cage. Food runs about $50 a year, plus $20 annually for toys and treats, and $220 annually for litter and bedding material. We recommend purchasing your gerbils from a breeder or, even better, adopting them from a local shelter or small-animal rescue group.
Gerbils are social, so it’s a good idea to get at least two. If you introduce them when they’re young, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a successful match—especially if you choose gerbils from the same litter. Please do not keep males and females together, or they will breed.
Get your gerbils set up in a wire cage or a 10-gallon aquarium that has a wire mesh cover. The enclosure should be placed away from direct sunlight and drafts, and lined with absorbent bedding. Timothy hay and aspen shavings are good choices, but avoid using pine or cedar shavings at all costs—the fumes from these products may be harmful to the animal. Also make sure that you change the litter often enough to keep it dry and odor-free.
Gerbils love to play, so be sure to provide yours with an exercise wheel that does not have any openings in which their tails can get caught. Toys will be much appreciated, but avoid toys made of soft plastic or cardboard— they will almost certainly be chewed to bits! Gerbils also like to hide and sleep inside enclosed spaces, so it’s a good idea to place a small box or flower pot for this purpose.
Gerbils also love to dig, so provide yours with plenty of extra bedding, hay or shredded paper towels. Tunneling’s fun for your pets, too. Large, sturdy tubes— those made from PVC, for example— will serve this purpose. And finally, don’t forget to place a smooth, clean stone or rock in your gerbils’ home. This will serve as a lookout for your naturally curious pets.
Your pets will do well on a good commercial gerbil seed mix with a protein content of about 12 percent, and a fat content in the 6- to 8-percent range. Nutritionally complete, gerbil mix is made up of pellets, grains, seeds and dried vegetables, and is readily available at pet supply stores. If you offer your pets a mix that includes sunflower seeds, you may notice them picking out these tasty treats first and leaving the high-protein, ultra-nutritious seeds for later. Don’t worry—they’ll eventually eat the good stuff, so please resist the urge to refill the bowl or offer more sunflower seeds, which are high in fat.
The ASPCA recommends offering small amounts of fresh vegetables to your gerbils every day. Carrots, leaf lettuces, turnips, and broccoli are good choices. Offer small amounts of sweet fruit such as apples and bananas every other day, but take care to introduce new foods gradually. Don’t forget to clean up any leftover fresh food before it spoils.
Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. It is best to use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube, and change the water daily.
Do not give your pets cabbage, potatoes, onions, uncooked beans, chocolate, candy or junk food.
General Care & Veterinary Care
Remove soiled bedding, droppings and any uneaten food every day. Clean the cage completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing the bottom of the cage with warm water and a liquid soap that’s safe for animals. Be sure everything’s dry before adding fresh bedding.
Did you know that gerbils’ teeth grow continuously, just like those of all other rodents? That’s why it is important that you provide yours with either a sterilized bone to gnaw on, or a twig that has not been treated with pesticides, chemicals or paints. This is crucial for keeping their teeth in tip-top condition and will prevent dental problems.
It’s important that you get your pets used to you—and used to being handled. Start by feeding them small treats. When they’re comfortable with that, you can pick them up by scooping them into your hand. Never pick up a gerbil by the tail, as this can cause injury.
When you’ve successfully hand-tamed your pets, you can allow them to run around outside of their cage for a supervised period of time each day. However, be sure to keep them in one room or screened-off area that has been checked carefully for any places from which they can escape, become lost or get hurt.
If you think one of your gerbils is sick, don’t delay—seek medical attention immediately. Common signs that something isn’t right with your pet include sneezing, difficulty breathing, diarrhea and lethargy. Gerbils are also susceptible to external parasites such as fleas and lice. If you think your pet is infested, you’ll need to treat both the animal, housing and surrounding environment.
Gerbil Supply Checklist
- 10-gallon aquarium (minimum) with wire cover or wire cage - Gerbil mix
- Aspen or hardwood shavings
- Hay, extra shavings or shredded paper towels for digging
- Small boxes or flower pots
- Exercise wheel (solid, no rungs)
- Cardboard tubes (recycle from paper towel and toilet paper rolls) or PVC tubes
- Attachable water bottle with drinking tube
- Unpainted, untreated piece of wood, sterilized bone, or safe chew toy