How to take care of your gerbil
These furry friends have adapted to desert environments-meaning their droppings are dry and odourless and produce small amounts of concentrated urine. During hot months they are nocturnal, in cold months they are active during the day, and temperate climates make them active at dawn and dusk. Very social animals, so single-sex groups introduced before puberty are best (fighting will occur if introduced after ten weeks of age) or as a breeding pair. These agile creatures love to burrow into and climb things, making them expert escape artists!! They are very territorial and like to outline their home with a waxy yellow secretion from a scent gland in their ventral abdomen, occurring as early as 19 days of age in both sexes (males moreso). They live naturally in a breeding pair with their children-older children help to rear the younger ones. Usually only the dominant pair will mate, the others being suppressed by the older couple's presence. They have poor long-distance vision but localise sounds well with hearing similar to us. Females are more aggressive and are especially fertile 8 hours after giving birth. They can jump as high as 30 cm. they ‘foot-thump’, this is a behavioural trait that is thought to be an alarm response. If they stand for ages and wave their tails, it means they are alert and something is frightening them-please have a look and try and identify what this stressor could be.
Commercial rodent mix PLUS fruits/vegetables (ie broccoli/kale) should be given. For younger animals soaking pellets in water may help digestibility (esp at weaning), and hiding food in tubes helps stimulate foraging behaviour. For an adult gerbil, about 4-10g per day should be fed, females needing the lower quantities. For treats, they love dried pumpkin seeds and also sunflower seeds – HOWEVER, the latter are high in fat and low in calcium. Gerbils are very prone to obesity (and as a follow on, diabetes) so do not overfeed these. Water should be available ad-lib and changed daily. They store food in the ‘tunnels’ they burrow-removing spoiled food weekly is advised.
Housing for gerbils
Glass or plastic tank with wire mesh lid that is at least 15cm high (they like to rest on their hindlegs!) half filled with mixture of peat and sawdust OR shavings is preferred-substrate must be at least 3cm deep to allow for burrowing. Nesting material and wood (great for gnawing) is destroyed quickly, with the entire tank needing cleaning and replacement of materials only every month or two-best to do this in small stages as total environmental change can be stressful to them. Can add paper/hay/plastic tubing/flower pots/glass jars for stimulation. Keep tank out of direct sunlight / away from radiators. Humidity must not be above 50% as respiratory infections can occur.
A sand or dust bath (as for chinchillas) is important for coat quality and to keep themselves at the right temperature, and should be readily available at all times. It also serves as social enrichment-serves some type of smell communication function.
Facts about gerbils
Life expectancy 2-4 years
Weight 70gms to 130 gms (females are smaller end of scale)
Gestation 24-26 days
Size of litter 3-6
Weaning 3-4 weeks old
Puberty 10-12-weeks old
Things to watch out for
DO NOT GRAB BY THE TAIL: this may cause the gerbil to ‘deglove’ the skin over the tail and expose the bone. No cure except to remove tail surgically. When handling, never do anything abruptly, use slow and gentle movements, with practise and training they may eventually walk into your hand!