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What you need to know about Gerbils!

Discussion in 'Small Animal Chat' started by Thea_SRA27, Feb 23, 2021.

  1. Thea_SRA27

    Thea_SRA27 Thea

    Jul 19, 2020
    Likes Received:
    Hi, Engel89 did one of these for hamsters a while ago, I asked if I could do one for gerbils but got no response so if I can't then this can be taken down. I have had to talk to people about gerbil care quite a few times though, so I thought it would be good to say everything in one place!

    I'm just going to talk all about gerbils - as much as I can possibly think to say!

    What are gerbils like?

    Gerbils are desert animals, typically around around 10-12 cm not including their tails. The tail is often nearly as long as their body. Gerbils are very active animals and live on average 2-4 years, but some may live longer. There are many different gerbil coat varieties, and a few different kinds that you can keep as pets. They aren't generally recommended as a good pet for young children as they are fast and hard to handle. Gerbils aren't very time consuming, but you still will need to regularly interact with them and there are some things you need to do for them daily (I will talk about this later).

    How do gerbils compare to hamsters?

    Some people say gerbils are a lot faster than hamsters, but this is not necessarily true depending on the breed. Gerbils are much faster and much more destructive than Syrian hamsters, but some hamsters like robos and dwarves may be as fast as gerbils. Gerbils are generally more awake in the day than hamsters, but this does vary. Some gerbils will sleep most of the day, but awake in the evenings and early morning, while some sleep most of the night and are awake in the day. In cage size, gerbils don't need quite as much space as hamsters. The minimum cage size for a hamster in the UK is 600 sq inches, and the minimum for gerbils is 10 gallons per gerbil (although personally, I think 15-20 gallons per gerbil is a better minimum to go by. I will talk more about this later).

    Where can you get gerbils from?

    Gerbils are sold in many pet shops but less common than hamsters, although personally I advise not to go for this option. I got my most recent gerbils, Pippa and Mali, from an ethical pet shop in the UK called 'Pets Corner'. I was told by people on the Gerbil Forum and Jackie from the National Gerbil Society that this was a good place to get gerbils from if you have no local breeders like me. The information about them is here: https://www.petscorner.co.uk/selling-pets-the-right-way .

    The best way to get gerbils is to go to a breeder or a rescue. If going with a breeder, you need to find out a lot about them before hand and ask them questions as not all breeders are ethical. There aren't many gerbil breeders in the UK in some areas, I'm in the South West and there were none for me within 2 hrs.

    What can gerbils be kept in?

    Some gerbilariums are suitable for gerbils, for an example the Gabry 80 for a pair, but many are not large enough. The minimum cage size is 10 gallons per gerbil, but as I said earlier 15-20 gallons is probably better. This means for a pair of gerbils a good cage size is around 30+ gallons, but a better size would be around 40, and for a trio a good size would be around 45 gallons, but a better size would be around 60.

    Gerbils need a lot of depth because of their digging, so you need an enclosure that is deep enough. In my opinion, gerbils should have a minimum of 8 inches, but 10+ inches is a better depth. A gerbil will then need enough space to stand on top of the bedding too, and if a gerbil is 4-5 inches in their body this means the cage will need to be at least 12-14 inches tall (12 if you put in 8 inches, 14 if you put in 10 inches).

    What are some good cage options?

    - Ikea Detolf. This is the cage I use, it is around 70 US gallons so I would put a maximum of 4 gerbils in here. This is a glass display cabinet which you turn on its side, take out the shelves and replace the door with a home made mesh lid. The detolf is 163 x 43 x 37 cm (L x W x H). You will need to lay it on something a little shorter than it is, as the wooden ends come down a bit lower than the glass bit its self so if you don't do this it will eventually smash. If you can't do this (like me), you can put some books underneath to make it all level. I love this cage personally. My only issue is that it is only around 14 inches tall, so I can only put in 10 inches, but I do no less than that and my girls love it. It is £60 straight from Ikea, but I got mine second hand for £22.

    - Fish Tanks. I used a fish tank before the detolf, and it worked well. You just need to make sure it is big enough for your gerbils. Lots of people use fish tanks, and like the detolf you just have to make your own lid for it. My only issue with fish tanks is that since they are designed for fish they are so expensive. Even second hand, a 30 gallon tank may be £80. Sometimes you do get lucky though, so I would definitely recommend fish tanks still.

    - Commercial cages. There are some appropriate commercial cages. If you would like a commercial cage for your gerbils, I will link some below!

    Ferplast Gabry 80, £156.45 on amazon. 79 x 30.5 x 51.4 cm. (32 gallons including topper, would only recommend for a pair)


    Living World Eco Habitat. £129.99 on Pet Planet. 98.5 x 58.5 x 52 cm. (79 gallons. Appropriate for up to 5/6 gerbils, although most people only have a maximum of 4 gerbils as they are likely to fight in more than that)


    - Rodipet Nagarium. Around £150-200. 100 x 50 x 50 cm. ( 66 gallons. Appropriate for up to 4 gerbils )


    There are many more suitable commercial cages, but I've given you these three to get an idea of what is a good type of commercial cage for gerbils.

    - Home made cages. Some people make their own cages. I can't say much about this as they're all different, but if you're into DIY I would definitely recommend! Some DIY cages are on Erin's Animals on YouTube.

    What substrates can you use?

    Substrates that can be used for gerbils are much the same as hamsters. Gerbils should have a minimum of 7-8 inches of bedding. Here are some types you can use.

    - Paper bedding. This is quite expensive, but brands like Kaytee clean and cosy are good for holding tunnels. Another big brand of paper bedding is carefresh. Paper beddings are the softest option for bedding, so some people who use another kind as their main substrate use some paper bedding as nesting material.

    - Wood beddings. You have to be very careful with wood beddings, as there are only a couple that are safe to use. Cedar and Pine should NOT be used, as they can cause respiratory issues. You should not use sawdust. Safe wood beddings are Aspen and Hemp, Hemp does not hold very well at all, but I use EcoShiv hemp and it holds amazingly because of the fibres in it that hold it together.

    - Hay. Hay should not be used as the main bedding, but is good to mix into paper beddings or wood beddings as it helps hold them together better. I use Timothy hay, but as far as I know any hays can be used as long as they are not sharp as this may hurt them. I would just recommend freezing hay for 72 hours before use to kill any mites that there may be.

    Cleaning the enclosure.

    With an appropriately sized cage and a good amount of bedding, a gerbil enclosure will only need to be cleaned out every 4-6 weeks. Some people do this more regularly, but especially if your gerbils go to the toilet in their sandbath or you spot clean and you take out any old food, there is no need to more often. If your gerbil cage starts to smell before a month, you probably aren't giving a good enough sized cage or enough bedding, as gerbils do not urinate much and rarely smell.

    This next part is optional but does help them (and stops you having to pay so much for bedding!), you can put around 1/3- 1/2 of the old bedding into a bag and keep it aside while you clean the cage, and add in this bedding to the new bedding. They can get stressed if you do a full clean out, and I've started doing this recently and it really helps. My gerbils only poo and wee in certain areas so I spot clean, so their old bedding is still pretty much clean.

    Take all of the bedding and toys out, and wipe down the tank with water to get any dust out. It's also helpful to use a pet-safe disinfectant, if you do not have one of these, you can use a third white vinegar and two thirds water mix. This is safe for them and I have never seen anyone say this is bad, and I've seen many people on the internet say it's safe. I've done it myself and haven't had any problems! Of course, I let it air out so the smell is not there when they go in (the smell actually wears off surprisingly quickly), wipe it down with water after and dry it.

    I would also suggest soaking their toys in hot water to clean them (you'd be surprised how dirty they get!).

    Gerbil chews.

    Gerbils have constantly growing teeth so always need things to chew on. Because of this, wooden toys are great. You may need to replace them sometimes as they destroy them, but they are very good for their teeth. You can buy chews for gerbils, but they tend to avoid the normal brightly coloured, shaped chews. Willow balls are good, as well as grass nests etc.
    You should also provide them with cardboard to chew on. They love toilet rolls, and they're completely free! They also love egg boxes and cereal boxes, as the ink used in non-toxic. Do not give gerbils anything other than these two if they have ink on them, as if they accidentally swallow any it may not be good.

    How many gerbils should you get?

    Most people go for a pair of gerbils, but you can also get them in trios. The risk is certainly much higher for 4 gerbils, but you can do that too sometimes. For females, it is best they are only kept in pairs as this way they are less likely to fight, but in some occasions they are able to be kept in trios. Males can be kept in pairs, but can also be kept in trios or more with less risk than females.

    Types of gerbils.

    The most common type of gerbil to get is the Mongolian gerbil, but there are some other types too.

    - Duprasi gerbils (Fat-tailed gerbils, or 'Doops'). Duprasi gerbils have much shorter, fatter tails than gerbils, as they store fat in them like a camel does in its humps. They are around 4 inches long, and look a little like some hamsters but with a pointier nose. They are from Egypt/North Africa and not closely related to Mongolian gerbils. They are an agouti colour. There are only a few Duprasi gerbil breeders in the UK. I don't know if I'm allowed to share a link so I won't for now, but there is a Duprasi thread on the Gerbil Forum that goes more in depth about Duprasi.

    - Persian jirds. These gerbils live in Asia in places such as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. They are an agouti colour, and look much like Mongolians but are more pointy looking and have a longer tuft at the end of their tail. They are around 6 inches long.

    - Pallid gerbils. Pallid gerbils are an agouti colour, but a much lighter colour agouti than that of a mongolian gerbil and they have more white on them. They are much smaller than a mongolian gerbil, and have a longer tail and bigger ears and eyes.

    Of course, there are so many gerbil species, but these are the three main gerbils that can be kept as pets apart from mongolian gerbils.

    Colours of gerbils

    There are many gerbil colours and patterns. I will not be able to say them all as there are so many, but here are some of the most common.

    - Golden Agouti. The most common gerbil colour. A brown-looking shade, but really made up of three layers of fur: white, black, and an orange/brown. https://ibb.co/B2w6rHP (This is Rolo, my past agouti. I have an agouti now but not many good photos)

    - Grey Agouti. The same as the golden agouti, but the orange/brown layer is gone. https://ibb.co/H4wDhZZ (Storme, my past grey agouti)

    - Black. Of course black gerbils are black, but they often also have white paws and chin. https://cdn.omlet.co.uk/images/originals/where-do-gerbils-sleep.jpg

    - PEW. Pink eyed White. https://live.staticflickr.com/160/356054545_b5fd86f34b_z.jpg

    - Slate. A very dark grey, or black with flecks of white. (couldn't find a good picture)

    - Pied gerbils. Pied have a white 'mane' and a diamond on their head, a white tipped tail and some other white spots. Pied gerbils can be most colours. Here is my pied slate girl https://ibb.co/LYBKX4q

    - Spotted. Like pied, but without the mane. (couldn't find good picture)

    - Siamese. Dark brown nose, ears, paws, and tail, while the rest is light brown. https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSzGGwSpTmVSykzROcEcXcUTu6cRdvAI0ozPQ&usqp=CAU

    - Burmese. Like siamese, but darker. https://www.rodentzone.com/wp-conte...44e90fe76e6dc10b9194694f4c8_640_fancy-rat.jpg

    Gerbil illnesses

    Again, I won't be able to list all the gerbil illnesses, but here are some of the most common.

    Overgrown teeth - Gerbils' teeth are constantly growing so sometimes their teeth become overgrown. This happens quite commonly in older gerbils as they stop chewing as much. It's important to check your gerbil's teeth regularly. You can do this by either gently turning them on their back, or lifting them above your head and lifting up their cheek. If they're overgrown at the front or back, take them to the vet and they will be able to cut them short again for you. If the teeth keep growing back, the vet may be able to show you how to cut them yourself with something like curved cat nail clippers.

    Tumours - It is not as common for gerbils to get tumours as it is for rats or mice, but it still does happen sometimes. One of the most common places for gerbils to get tumours is on their scent gland. If you see a tumour you should go to the vet and they should be able to remove it under anaesthetic, but as this is a risky process, if they're older they may just give you pain medication for them.

    Gerbils may also get cysts. A example is an Ovarian Cyst, which is quite common in females. Signs of this is one or both sides of her are quite bloated.

    Baldness - Patches of bald fur can happen when your gerbils get older, but on the nose it is often if they are chewing the bars. If your gerbil is chewing the bars they are most likely bored or stressed.

    Broken bones - Sometimes gerbils can get broken bones, and in some areas it is more common than others. They should be taken to a vet if you think they have a broken bone. If it is on their leg, it will most likely heal on it's own in a few weeks, but if it is somewhere else like the spine this can be very serious and they need immediate medical attention.

    Respiratory issues - Gerbils have weak respiratory systems, therefore are quite likely to develop them if a place is too dusty. If your gerbil is clicking when they are breathing, change the bedding as soon as possible as they may have a respiratory illness. When a gerbil is very sick and at the end of their life, they may make clicking noises that have not come from a respiratory illness, but this will be one of the later symptoms.

    Kidney problems - Kidney issues are quite common in older gerbils. I have dealt with them in two gerbils, and I've only had seven in all. Symptoms are: drinking a lot more than normal, smaller poos, weeing more, blood in urine (not always, this can be a sign of a UTI too), licking the walls of the cage and lethargy. A vet can check for kidney issues with a sample of the gerbil's urine.

    Heart failure - Gerbils who have heart failure will have laboured breathing, and a bigger looking stomach because of the buildup of fluid. This is very uncomfortable for a gerbil, so if your gerbil has these signs they need to be checked by a vet straight away. The vet may be able to take away ome of the buildup of fluid in the gerbil to make it more comfotable.

    Seizures - These are generally seen in younger gerbils, where they stand still in the same spot for a while. They aren't normally a reason for concern, and are very common. Most gerbils grow out of having seizures as they get older.

    Mites - Some gerbils will get mites. The only symptom you will notice normally is them itching a lot. If there's a chance a gerbil has mites, you can buy parasite treatments at most pet shops without a prescription. If the itching does not go away after a couple of days of giving this, take them to the vet.

    Cholesteatoma - This is an inner ear problem in gerbils. It is a lump in the inner ear that can cause dizziness and sometimes brain problems. Unfortunately it normally cannot be cured, but the vet may be able to give you medication to help them stop itching the lump as it may get bigger if they do. Take them to the vet if you notice they look at you with their head to the side or have a lump in their ear.

    How do I health check my gerbil?

    You should do a health check on your gerbils every week just to check that they are okay. Here are some of the things you should check with them:

    - Is there any discharge under the tail?
    - Is there any discharge around the eyes or mouth?
    - Is there any baldness?
    - Are the teeth overlapping each other?
    - Are the claws overgrown or dirty?
    - Are there any lumps? Always make sure to check the scent gland too.
    - Is the fur greasy or scruffy? (if you don't give them a sand bath and it is, make sure to give them one)
    - Are their eyes bright, not half shut?
    - Is their breathing laboured or is there any clicking?


    Even though gerbils are social animals, there is not a guarantee that they will always get along. Some gerbils, even when they seem very close, will suddenly turn on each other. This can be caused by many things, one of them being illness. If your gerbils declan, make sure to health check them as it may be that one of them is ill.

    Signs of declanning are squeaking, not sleeping together, and excessive play fighting or any fighting that looks bad. When they declan, unfortunately you will need to separate them and introduce them to new gerbils. gerbils who have declanned cannot be reintroduced to each other.

    How do you do a split intro?

    Split intros in gerbils are done when you have a lone gerbil, either from it's friend having passed or a declan. To do a split intro, you need a cage around 20 gallons, because if it is too big they will avoid each other. You need a divider, you can make one yourself with wood and mesh, like this: https://tinyurl.com/6n2h4ju2
    Put one gerbil either side, and leave them for around a week. Every day that they are in the split, you will need to swap which side they are in three times a day so that they can sleep in each others dens and use each others bedding. A good sign that a split is ready to be done is when they are sleeping either side of the divider. When you remove it, watch them for a while (30 mins - 1 hr). If they are okay together you can leave them, but keep very close watch on them throughout the day. If they fight, you can continue the same split process for another week.

    What do you need in a gerbil enclosure?

    Aside from lots of bedding, there are a few things that are important to have in a gerbil enclosure.

    Gerbils will need hides to sleep in, you can bury these or have them out. They may sleep in their own nest, but it's good to have them as an option too. As they live together, sometimes gerbils will still want their own space so a couple of hides are needed to allow them to spend time alone if they need it. If they are sleeping apart though, this is not always a good thing as it could be a sign of a declan (not always, just if they do it continually).

    They will need some toys to play in, so that they don't get bored. Tunnels are great, and other wooden toys. There are so many options, but just make sure that a gerbil would be able to fit inside (a tunnel should have at least a 4cm diameter).

    A wheel is not actually essential for gerbils as it is for hamsters, but it is very highly recommended to have one. The minimum size for a gerbil is an 8 inch wheel, although bigger is better. I wouldn't suggest getting a bigger wheel than 12 inches, as it may be too large for them to push.

    Food and water! The easiest way to provide your gerbils with water is through a water bottle, but some also give the additional option of a water bowl. I prefer to use a water bottle though, so that there are no risks of them weeing or pooing in their water. With food, some people choose to use a food bowl and that's fine. I personally scatter feed as it encourages natural behaviours and I think this is a good way to go, but do what works for you. I occasionally put some food in a bowl, but only fresh foods.

    A sand bath is needed too, as this cleans the gerbil's fur and keeps it soft. This is not something that should be pushed away! Gerbils can have permanent sand baths, or you can put one in every few days. If it is permanent, you will need to sieve the sand every day as they often use it as a toilet or kick bedding in.

    They also need things to chew, of course.

    Taking gerbils out for exercise.

    It is good to take gerbils out for exercise. Before I say anything about this, I must say that hamster balls are not safe to use with them. This goes not only for gerbils, but for all animals. Hamster balls have very small ventilation holes so there is not much air, and they can get their toes stuck in the ventilation holes. They also only have very little control over where they are going, and even the clear balls are very hard for them to see through. They are also very stressful. This is a big 'no'!

    I like to free roam my gerbils. To do this, you'll need to make sure there is not way they can escape the room, nowhere they can get trapped, nothing that can fall on them, nothing dangerous for them to chew or nothing that you would mind them chewing, and no wires. But with all this checked off, it's a great way to exercise them. They need to be supervised the whole time when free roaming.

    Play pens can also be used. You can buy one or make one. Again, they need to be supervised.

    Fresh fruits and veggies.

    Gerbils can be given some fresh fruits and veggies 2-3 times a week. Do not give them too much or too often, because it can upset their stomach. Also make sure they are not too watery, as gerbils do not need too much water as they are desert animals. Research into any fruits or vegetables you give them, as some are unsafe and poisonous. Here are some of the best fresh fruits and veggies to give.

    The fruits that I've highlighted in pink should be given in smaller amounts as they are higher in water.

    - Carrot.
    - Apple.
    - Banana.
    - Sultanas.

    - Melon
    - Cooked peas.
    - Strawberry
    - Blueberry

    What needs to be done daily for gerbils?

    - Feeding. Feed around 8-10g daily per gerbil.
    - Fresh water needs to be given.
    - Check waterbottle still works.
    - Sieve their sand if it's in the cage.
    - Take any bedding off their wheel, and check the wheel still turns.
    - Interact with them! Let them sniff you, feed them treats or handle them.


    It may take a while to tame your gerbils when they first come home, but there's a few things you can do to help them warm up to you. I would recommend rubbing your hands in their bedding a little daily for the first few weeks that you have them. This is because they get used to your scent so will be more willing to be handled. Another great thing to do is putting treats in your hand and letting them come to them, as they'll have to put their paws on your hand to get the treat. Sometimes they might even sit in your hand to eat the treat. It's good to handle them when you can, but you shouldn't hold them for around 48 hours after they first come home as they need to get used to their new surroundings. You can also give them a treat, and try to stroke their head while they eat it. This gets them used to the feeling of being stroked.

    I will be adding to this regularly, when I think of new things I need to say. As Engel89 said, I am definitely not a professional or an expert in gerbils. Go to a vet if you are concerned, but I am always here if you have any questions!

    #1 Thea_SRA27, Feb 23, 2021
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2021
    Nicola234 and Knighterist like this.
  2. Knighterist

    Knighterist PetForums Member

    Feb 10, 2020
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    Absolutely amazing and detailed post! This is perfect for any new gerbil owner. I never had gerbils before and this post is definitely enlightening!
    Thea_SRA27 likes this.
  3. Thea_SRA27

    Thea_SRA27 Thea

    Jul 19, 2020
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    Thank you so much! :)
  4. This is absolutely perfect! Thank you so much for this, it is really going to help beginners with their gerbil care and will even teach experienced owners new things.:)
    I do have one question though, why are cage sizes measured in floorspace for hamsters but volume for gerbils? Unless you fill the whole cage with substrate they can’t use the whole space???
    Thea_SRA27 likes this.
  5. Thea_SRA27

    Thea_SRA27 Thea

    Jul 19, 2020
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    Thanks! :)
    That's a good question. I'm not entirely sure actually, it's a bit silly isn't it? I think the other way of measuring size for gerbils is a minimum of 1 ft x 1ft per gerbil, but it's better to go with 1.5 ft x 1 ft per gerbil. So for a pair, a good size would be a 1 x 3 ft cage. I've never seen anything about measuring gerbil cages in sq inches though, so I'm afraid I can't help on that!
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