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Pet Gerbil Care

by: Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine

"Gerbils make good pets," says Dr. Randall L. Peper, veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana. "They are more active than hamsters and have active periods during both day and night. They are friendlier and more docile than other rodents. And their cage stays cleaner because they are a desert animal that doesn't drink or urinate much."

Gerbils are relatively inexpensive to purchase and feed and require only minimal space and care. They also make good solitary pets. However, they enjoy interaction, and the more a gerbil is handled, the tamer it will be. Gerbils that are not accustomed to being handled may bite.

Most gerbils live three to four years and have few health problems. Like other mammals, gerbils can develop cancers in their later years. Twenty to forty percent of gerbils have a genetic predisposition to epileptic seizures. The seizures are initiated by loud noises or stress and may first strike when the gerbil is about two months of age. There is no treatment, and the gerbils usually recover on their own. Since this runs in families, it is best not to breed your gerbil if it has seizures.

A small aquarium with a screen top is an ideal gerbil home. Aquariums are easy to clean, minimize drafts, and prevent paper or wood shavings from being kicked onto the floor. Gerbils are very curious and sit on their haunches to view their surroundings. They also like to burrow. Give them plenty of bedding to pile up, both to burrow in and to climb on top of for the best possible view. Enrich their environment with toys and tunnels, even paper towel tubes they can crawl in and chew up.

Gerbil owners should feed their pet a commercial pellet feed made especially for gerbils. Fresh water from a hanging bottle should also be available at all times. Greens, such as lettuce, and seeds can be offered as occasional treats. Uneaten portions of greens should be removed before they rot.

If one gerbil is good, are two gerbils better? "Gerbils should be kept single unless they are paired together at a young age," cautions Dr. Peper. "Even if they are paired young and then are separated for more than a few days, they won't want a reunion. The likely result is a nasty fight. If you want more than one gerbil, get them young and keep them together. If you don't want babies, then get pairs of males or females."

Gerbils are sexually mature at 2 to 3 months of age. The pregnancy lasts 25 days and usually results in five babies. Both mother and father are good parents and will raise the litter together. Dr. Peper advises not disturbing the new family by cleaning the cage or handling any of them for the first couple of weeks. It is best for them to have food and water and privacy during this time.

"If I were to choose a pet rodent, I would choose a gerbil," says Dr. Peper. "One word of caution, though: don't pick up your pet gerbil by the tail. The skin can slip off, leaving bone exposed and requiring the tail to be amputated. Pick up the whole gerbil in one or both hands."

For more information on animal health, contact your local veterinarian.

2001 S Lincoln Ave / Urbana, Illinois 61802-6199 / Phone: 217/333-2907

Reprinted with permission from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine