Gerbils are not super common but still are a pet most people have heard of. They are small rodents about mice/hamster size. Unlike rats & mice the gerbil's long tail is furred!
Gerbils are of the same Family as rats & mice- Muridae, but of the Subfamily of Gerbillinae. There are around 110 species within the Gerbil family! These are desert rats from Asia, Africa and India. They belong to the Genus Meriones, SubGenus Pallasiomys. And the Species Meriones Unguiculatus.
The domesticated pet Gerbil is the Mongolian Gerbil. Most just refer to it as just the Gerbil though. They began to be kept as pets in the 1950s after they were first brought to the US for research.
I am currently breeding:
An adult female should weigh around 70-110g while males are around 80-120g
Their average lifespan is about 3 years or so. Similar to that of rats.
They are fairly popular pets as they have a pretty calm temperament, rarely bite, and are more active during the day.
Gerbils are highly social animals just like all the other ones and need to be kept in groups. It is suggested to get 3+ as they can be very difficult to introduce new gerbils to in the future.
Gerbils are more independent than a rat but still can bond deeply and enjoy interaction with an owner who takes the time to properly handle and spend time with them often. They tend not to like being picked up but like to jump up in your hand themselves.
They can be quite energetic and active and it is great fun to watch their antics! They are very quick little darting animals, if you are someone who gets nervous around that behavior they are not for you!
They have some more unique needs that are discussed below in housing...
Are Gerbils the right pet for me?
I do think these can be a nice pet for families with children, of course with adult supervision and responsibility.
Are you unable to let your rats out to play? Then a pet that is more cage bound is ideal.
Are you very busy and might not have the time to give daily hands-on attention to your pet, while still having enough time to clean and feed/care for it?
Do naked rat tail's freak you out?
Easy to care for, do not require as much maintenance & have a longer time between cleanings
Younger children will have to be extremely careful handling them as they could be easily injured if too rough.
They can be quite energetic and not animals to sit still often
They require large cages with a lot of floor space. Often tanks will be used and they are heavy and pricey.
Are extremely destructive and will chew everything
They require much more bedding & a well-designed cage
As they burrow under bedding in tunnels, you may not always see them when you want to! But usually they come running out when food is involved. But they are active during the day.
I end up having to replace their wheel every few months...
Gerbils are prone to seizures.
Let me repeat, those plastic critter trail cages are not appropriate for any animal. Do not use.
Gerbils love to dig burrows and tunnels and this is an important part of their environment and mental stimulation. Because of this, they require VERY deep substrate (bedding). So most if not all normal cages will not work for them.
By far most of the cage needs to be filled with bedding. Like 6-8" the minimum and way higher the better.
Because of this need for such deep bedding their cage needs to be suitable to hold that. A tank, a bin cage or a DIY shelf cage is ideal.
A tank with a mesh lid can be used (it MUST have a lid as they can jump out!), the minimum for a pair is a 20 gallon but 40 is more ideal. (Hint: Petco often has $1 per gallon sales on tanks!)
A cage topper could be added if desired if you want to set up an area to put their food/water or wheel. The issue is that gerbils have a high tendency to chew on the bars and this can not only be annoying to you but not healthy for the gerbil. With a larger cage and tons and tons of fun things for them to do and chew on they will be less likely to chew the bars though.
Another way to section off the food/water is to split off part of the tank using cardboard or a wooden flexible hide on its side to make a wall. Fill the larger section with bedding and the smaller with less bedding.
A properly made bin cage can be used with a window cut out of the lid and mesh added. Holes cut are not ok at all, it needs a large window with mesh. The bin needs to be a large size, with large floor space.
Another very popular idea is DIY cages. There are lots of tutorials online and many use ikea shelf units you can order online. Here are a few:
Now, what type of bedding should you use to fill this cage up with?
You will actually need to use 3 types of beddings and A LOT of it. First and mostly you want to use either aspen or kiln dried pine. You want to mix that with some, not a ton of a paper bedding. Both of these mixed together is going to create a much better and stronger tunnel system and allow the bedding to not all crumble and fall when they build their tunnels.
They will also require hay both for nibbling on and for nesting with.
I do recommend a very full and fun cage with lots of climbing & hides. Also tunnels galore!! Bury some under bedding, have them all over the place, they are tunneling animals and this will really make them happy! Avoid plastics when possible.
A wheel 8-12 inches is also a must, they should have a solid floor for the wheel. Now as I said Gerbils can be super destructive so the plastic wheels that are out there can be destroyed pretty easily. Instead, I suggest a wooden wheel . They still may chew it some but not as bad.
Absolutely no hamster balls.
They also need lots of stuff to chew and play with. Apple wood sticks are a huge plus. Cardboard tubes are fun. Unlike rats, Gerbils MUST have items to chew on.
Gerbils should have access to a sand bath like for chinchillas. You want to use sand and not dust. You want to use either a large bowl or they make little sand bath houses. I like to use glass like cookie/food storage containers or glass fish/candle bowls. Be creative! You can leave it in the cage but they may use it as a litter box if you do and it will need to be changed very often. or you can place it in their cage for a little bit every day or every few days. You want to have the bath elevated some and higher edges are better so they can't kick the sand out everywhere.
Watching a gerbil roll around in the sand bath is adorable! And will keep their coat very nice!
Do not bathe your gerbil, let them bathe themselves and use the sand bath.
I highly recommend checking out this post on a gerbil forum for setting up their cage! It shows a really great set up idea where you build a little cardboard underground city/tunnel system and then put all the bedding on top! I'd probably suggest a thin layer of bedding first. Top it with hay.
This video (not my video) is also an awesome example of setting up a cage.
Like rats, they are omnivores with a mostly grain-based diet.
They should get about 1 tablespoon of food a day per Gerbil. You can feed in a bowl or scatter feed. They can get treats (nothing sugary or overly processed crap marketed as treats for pets) but fresh foods about twice a week.
I am very picky about all of my animal's diets. I am still exploring the very best diet for a gerbil. But as of this moment I am feeding Oxbow Hamster & Gerbil, Gerri Gerbil Food (- the corn), sunflower seeds and an herb mix with fresh foods. Once I have tried it out for a while I will update on any changes.
Some good diet advice can be found on this website:
A safe/not safe food list
Obviously, they need a water bottle at all times with fresh clean water. Do not use a bowl, they will potty in it and get bedding in it or worse knock it over.
Though the issue with water bottles is plastic ones can be chewed and destroyed. I'd suggest glass. You can use velcro to stick the water bottle or water bottle holder onto the tank to keep it in place!
I started my lines from the amazing breeder
Moonshadow Mischief Rattery & Exotics located in PA.
I adore Amber and am so lucky to have gotten to work with her.