What is a Gerbil?
Gerbils have often been touted as ‘small pets with giant personalities.’ Being rodents, they can be excellent house pets for you if you’re looking for a pet animal that does not require high levels of maintenance like dogs or cats do.
We have covered everything that you should know before you choose to bring home a pet gerbil or may want to know about caring for your gerbil if you already have one. This article is essentially a complete guide to caring for gerbils.
Physical Characteristics of Gerbils
Gerbils are quite small creatures naturally. Most adult gerbils weigh roughly 2 to 3 ounces as adults (50 to 90 grams). However, male gerbils have a small advantage over female gerbils in terms of size.
Wild gerbils sport a color combination known as agouti colors, which is essentially a combination of black, grey, and yellow-colored fur coats with a belly usually covered in off-white-colored fur.
Humankind has, over the years, bred gerbils to sport-specific fur coat colors. These include colors like white, black, grey, and buff colors. Their bodies are around the size of mice, measuring about 4 inches in length. Their furry tails add roughly another 3 inches.
The fat-tailed gerbil is an exception to the typical tail size in comparison to its body. The fat-tailed gerbil is characterized by its plump and roundish biological structure along with a hairless tail.
In addition to this, most gerbil species have hind limbs that are specifically thin and long to help their ability to leap long distances.
All their limbs also sport fairly long claws, which they can use to dig the ground to create burrows for self-preservation. Some gerbil breeds have long ears, while others have short ones.
A ventral marking gland is found on the abdomen of both male and female gerbils. The gland is normally oval in shape and has an orange-tan hairless appearance. It’s sometimes misdiagnosed as a tumor.
During puberty, the gland of male gerbils enlarges and releases an oily fluid. Male gerbils typically utilize this to establish their territory. How? Well, gerbils rub their bellies on the areas or items they want to proclaim dominance over.
We will cover more about this behavioral aspect further on. Still, you must remember that gerbils are, in fact, pretty territorial creatures.
Common Gerbil Breeds as Pets
There are over 110 species in the gerbil subfamily. This has sparked debate among taxonomists about how and what to name these gerbil breeds and species. Although gerbils come in a variety of colors, only two types are popularly kept as pets.
These are the Mongolian gerbils and fat-tailed gerbil breeds. Mongolians live for two to four years, while fat-tailed gerbils survive for around five to eight years. We created a compiled list of the most popular gerbil breeds that you can choose to keep as pets!
One of the most widely owned gerbil breeds is the Mongolian gerbil. Typically found in China and, as the name suggests, Mongolia, this breed costs roughly $8 for one. Mongolian gerbils grow to be roughly 6 inches to 12 inches big and are, by nature, a wild gerbil breed.
Mongolian wild gerbils are typically yellow, grey, or light brown and grey. However, due to humankind’s efforts to selectively breed these gerbils for specific colors, you can also find other various kinds of Mongolian gerbils in the pet gerbil market.
The second most common breed of gerbils is the fat-tailed gerbil, typically found in the African countries of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Fat-tailed gerbils, although a popular pet breed, are not easy to find.
This is the reason why this breed of gerbils costs about $30 on the pet gerbil market. In spite of being roughly the same size as the Mongolian gerbil breed, fat-tailed gerbils are vastly different in appearance.
Not only do they have substantially shorter tails, but they also are plump creatures.
The pale gerbil is a gerbil animal found in Egypt. It is not an extremely popular pet breed. These gerbils are characterized by the orange and white color pattern on their fur coats. Further, these gerbils can grow to be about 11 inches and weigh around 50 grams.
The Shaw’s jird is likely one of the largest breeds of gerbils in the world. The Shaw’s jird gerbil can grow up to about 14 inches in length and are found in different fur colors.
The Shaw’s jird is a popular pet choice because of how tractable and docile they are as a breed, with their human owners.
The great gerbil breed originates in the Asian continent. It is similarly sized to its other gerbil counterparts, growing up to a size varying between 6 inches and 12 inches.
This breed’s characteristic features are large claws that dig burrows and grooves in their skulls for their front-row teeth.
North African Gerbil
The brown and orange color scheme is one of the North African Gerbil breed’s differentiating features. Along with that, it also sports a contrasting stripe along the length of its nose, and its body structure makes up only about 60% of its total size.
The Tamarisk Jird contends with Shaw’s jird in terms of size, growing up to a weight of roughly 150 grams. This breed is generally found in parts of Asia and predominantly in Mongolia and Chinese territories.
The Guinea gerbil is a distinctive breed whose tail measures longer than its body itself. All in all, this gerbil breed measures about 12 inches long.
It is found in African territories where the landscape is dry, tropical, or subtropical.
Predators of the Gerbil Species
Gerbils are common prey in the wildlife food chain. Therefore, regardless of what breed or species they belong to, in the wild, their temperament is to hide and preserve themselves from animals that lie above them in the food chain, i.e., predatorial animals.
Therefore, most wild gerbils must protect and preserve themselves from a huge variety of predators. Typically, animals like foxes, carnivorous snakes, and owls are common predators that gerbils watch out for in the wild.
Along with that, gerbils are also in danger of being poached and killed by human beings because of the value of their fur coats which are after used to create and sell clothes.
Another seemingly insignificant predator is parasitic insects. Parasites like ticks, fleas, and worms also put gerbils at risk of being killed.
How do Gerbils Protect Themselves from Predators?
Given the fact that gerbils are prey animals in the wild, they have evolved to develop defense mechanisms that help them preserve themselves from predatory animals like hawks, eagles, owls, snakes, and other such animals.
Here are some common ways the gerbil animal defends its life from predators –
Burrowing is one of the most popular ways that a gerbil resorts to for self-defense. The gerbil starts the process by digging its burrow using its claws and limbs.
Regardless of whether the gerbil lives in captivity or the wild, the species has an evolutionary tendency to create burrows for itself. Most burrows are characterized by over ten entrances and exits, both in the species’ wild habitat as well as in captivity.
Extra burrows will be nearby if a group of gerbils is present. When the party is out scavenging for food, these tunnels come in handy. They make sure that no gerbil is ever too far from a hiding place. Gerbils can hide in these burrows and evade predators.
When a predator approaches, the gerbil can dash into the nearest tunnel. The majority of predators are too large to be pursued. The gerbil is swift enough to get away from anybody who can track it down through the tunnel system.
The fascinating behavior about the gerbil species is that burrows created by different families of gerbils will be used by all of them as a common resort to protect themselves against predators.
Therefore, any given family of gerbils will flee to their burrow or any burrow network that is closest to them if the threat gets any closer. By digging with their paws and claws, gerbils create their own burrows.
These burrows are large enough to hold the entire family and are deep and wide enough to accommodate them.
The main reason why gerbils choose burrowing as their foremost line of defense is that the defense of burrows is simple. A gerbil can sit near the tunnel entrance and bite any predators who try to enter.
This is, of course, much more preferable to the alternative of being sure-prey on the ground exposed to aerial and land predators.
Stomping their feet
Gerbils spend a lot of time on their rear legs because it helps them identify predators from afar. A gerbil begins beating its hind feet when it detects a threat. As a gerbil’s best defense, this works in tandem with the burrow system.
This identical behavior can be observed in captivity. Your gerbil is still standing on its hind feet, body, and head unmoving. It will rap its feet against the ground rapidly, one after the other, with short gaps in between. This is a hint that something is wrong.
Other gerbils in the vicinity will join in, and everyone will be on the lookout.
Wrestling with the predator
Now, a commonly overlooked fact is that, at times, gerbils themselves can be predators to other gerbils. This situation might arise over a dispute over territory or dominance. In such cases, gerbil animals will often resort to physically wrestling with the competing gerbil.
They accomplish this by pinning each other to the ground. Both gerbils will usually stand facing each other, occasionally on their hind legs. Each fighting gerbil will use loud squeaks in an attempt to assert dominance by frightening the opponent gerbil.
When this doesn’t work on the opponent, the gerbil’s fight will involve extensive pushing and punching each other with their forelimbs until either gerbil is successfully able to pin the other one on the ground with no way to retaliate.
The winner of the wrestling bout is the gerbil on top. It is also interesting for us to note that the idea is not to kill the other gerbil rather simply to assert indubitable dominance over the other.
Using their teeth
Being territorial creatures, gerbils don’t respond well to another gerbil attempting to enter its territory. Typically, gerbils choose to engage in physical combat using wrestling and fighting with their teeth with the intruding gerbil.
Another alternative fighting tactic involves going after the intruding gerbil’s tail with its teeth. Gerbils have long, strong teeth, but unlike canines, their teeth aren’t particularly sharp.
Some teeth will have sharp edges, but these are only their incisors, which are the teeth that are visible as the front row of their jaws. Having said that, gerbils grow their teeth consistently throughout their life.
This allows them to grind and file their teeth to become sharp and possibly lethal. Sometimes, gerbils will also use their teeth to protect themselves against different predators.
When a gerbil is afraid for its life, it bites even harder. While this will not protect you from most predators, it is better protection than none at all.
Playing possum is also known as playing dead. Even though it is named after the possum’s classic defense mechanism, other rodents, including the gerbil, also resort to it in worst-case scenarios.
The gerbil’s way of acting dead isn’t nearly as complicated as that of other animals like the possum. It will simply remain completely still, hoping that the predator ignores it thinking it to be dead for a while.
It does so because deceased prey may be infested with parasites or flies, as well as contaminated with pathogens. To prevent this dilemma, predators seek to seize live prey.
Gerbils, on the other hand, do not develop bad odors to make it appear as if they are dead or have been dead for a long period.
Understanding your Gerbil’s Temperament and Behavioral Needs
Understanding your pet gerbil’s temperament and behavioral needs is vital for you to provide them with the attention and care they need, as a pet species, to thrive.
Therefore, we have highlighted some aspects of the gerbil animal’s temperament and behavioral tendencies that you must remember while caring for them.
Gerbils are active and follow a crepuscular sleeping pattern.
Gerbils are active creatures that choose to have dedicated nap times spread across their day. Now, these animals cannot be called nocturnal or diurnal creatures in terms of their sleep cycles.
Rather, gerbils follow a sleep pattern referred to as crepuscular. This means that gerbils are most active before, during, and around sunsets and sunrises.
The remainder of the day, they will choose to explore their surroundings, be it in their natural habitat or in captivity. Gerbils will also spend time playfully fighting with each other physically.
Gerbils are intelligent
Even though they aren’t as intelligent as some of their rodent counterparts, research on gerbils shows that they do display some amount of emotional and technical intelligence.
Some activities that you can use to sharpen their brain are to create mazes and train them to find their way out using food as a treat for them.
Additionally, gerbils also possess social intelligence that allows them to form interpersonal relations with other gerbils and create colonies of their own. These creatures are also curious by nature and are eager to learn if you can train them properly!
Gerbils are sociable
Gerbils are highly sociable animals. Keeping this in mind, your pet gerbils would be happier if they lived with a companion gerbil with them. Moreover, gerbils in pairs or families are usually quite affectionate with one another.
Therefore, you don’t always need to fret over ensuring they aren’t at each other’s throats. Activities such as wrestling and boxing are healthy and playful activities that also allow them to bond with one another.
Additionally, they will groom each other, lie in mounds, and snuggle with one another. If you keep your pet gerbils in pairs, they will be considerably happier. However, bear in mind that gerbils that have fought violently may never be able to live in peace.
Simply put, some gerbils, like some human beings, can’t seem to get along. Having said that, you must only introduce new gerbils to older gerbils in a specific way. Skipping a proper introduction process can lead to aggression and violence between the two gerbils.
Thumping as a Means of Communication in Gerbils
Gerbils do this as a warning to other gerbils when they are excited or anxious. The gerbil makes the thumping sound by beating its hind legs against the ground or floor under it.
Commonly, when one gerbil is spooked and starts thumping, other gerbils in the enclosure or room will often start thumping as well.
Gerbils can also introduce changes in the frequency of their thumping along with volume to indicate how urgently it needs the support of its tribe or colony.
Following her mentality, the other gerbils may join in if there is a rhythmic thumping or clicking noise in the house due to the enticing nature of the thumping.
Squeaking as a Means of Communication in Gerbils
Adult gerbils usually only use squeaking to communicate emotions such as excitation, anxiety, or playfulness. However, young gerbils make use of their voices to communicate their various needs to their caregiving parent gerbils.
How to Handle Gerbils?
Gerbils need to be handled cautiously in order to prevent them from getting frightened or averse to being handled by human beings or any specific human being.
Therefore, the very first step to properly handling gerbils is to allow them to get a sense of their surroundings, especially if they’re in new surroundings. This process is known as acclimatization.
A thing to remember is that you must only try to handle your gerbil while it is awake and aware of your presence. Gradually, as your pet gerbil becomes more comfortable in your shared living space, you can win over its trust using tools such as treats and food.
Once your pet gerbil is comfortable enough to approach you by itself, simply allow it to do so. Gradually, you can pick it up in your hands very gently so as to avoid scaring it or startling it.
When your gerbil gets into the habit of being handled by you, you can cup your hands and place your pet gerbil animal in that. Another way of handling them is to pick them up using the scruff of their necks.
However, you should ideally only do this if you want to prevent it from falling or if you want to move it to a better position. Other physical acts of affection that you can pamper your pet gerbil with are scratching their heads or rubbing their cheeks and along their backbones.
Natural Gerbil Habitat
A gerbil’s natural habitat can be best described as deserts that have little to none when it comes to resources that animals can survive on. Further, it can also be referred to as the non-vegetative wild.
Some breeds of gerbils can also be found living in valleys, grasslands, and clay deserts. The temperatures in these habitats can reach extremes on either end of the spectrum. The gerbil is equipped to deal with this temperature variation due to its thick coat of fur.
Their habitat must also have moderately soft soil textures since burrowing is one of the gerbil animal’s foremost lines of defense against predators.
Additionally, a gerbil’s natural habitat is also infested with predators like birds, snakes, foxes, and parasitic insects.
How to Create the Ideal Home for Gerbils as Pets
For your gerbil to lead a happy and comfortable life, it is your duty to create the ideal home for your pet gerbil.
For your easy referral, we have compiled some things that you will have to consider while making your house shared living space with your pet gerbil. Keep reading to make your home a home for your pet gerbil too!
Gerbil housing for your pet gerbil
As a gerbil in captivity, one of the foremost requirements for your pet gerbil is a dedicated gerbilarium with enough bedding and nesting material, as well as shelter, digging chances, and exercise space.
Gerbils in the wild dwell in dry areas, in big, deep burrows dug by themselves to protect them from predators and extreme weather. Gerbils grow fur on the soles of their feet, making it difficult for them to climb.
Further, the gerbilarium must be placed in a clean, pleasant, dry, draught-free home in a peaceful location where they can relax without getting startled by unsolicited sounds and intrusions.
You must also make sure they aren’t exposed to draughts or moisture or full sunlight and heat from a radiator.
Your pet gerbil must be housed in a place that’s sheltered from televisions, vacuum cleaners, computers, or any appliances that emit ultrasounds. The reason is that gerbils use ultrasonic frequencies to communicate and are, therefore, sensitive to sounds that we cannot hear.
You should also avoid flooring their enclosures with pillows, cotton wool, or any form of bedding that will disintegrate into individual strings. Due to the danger of entanglement or ingestion, they pose a major threat to their health and wellbeing.
While setting up your pet gerbil’s enclosure, be sure to also place an object with a rough surface, such as a stone, to help wear down claws and give burrows more rigidity. These are also ideal locations for scent-marking.
Claws on gerbils must be regularly worn down by digging or walking on hard surfaces because gerbils, like other rodents, have the ability to grow their teeth and nails throughout their lives.
Appropriate Toys for Gerbils
Bear in mind that gerbils are fairly active animals and will, therefore, need toys to entertain themselves with. Giving your pet gerbil a quality chew toy is likely to make it the happiest little furball in the world.
You can either buy rubber, and silicon chew toys for your pet gerbil or simply offer it clean and sanitary rolls of cardboard.
Creating a play area where your pet gerbil can also climb up ladders or wooden structures will help your gerbil exercise in a healthy manner with the right toys!
Appropriate company for pet gerbils
The fact is that gerbils are actually extremely sociable creatures and, therefore, need a proper amount of socialization. Ideally, you should always house them with a gerbil companion.
Male gerbils should only be housed with female gerbils if you are prepared to put in extra effort and care toward breeding them. Else, male gerbils should be kept with male gerbils, and female gerbils should be housed with their female counterparts.
They prefer to be in pairs or small groups of people of the same gender. Gerbils are gregarious animals that live in groups of two to fifteen animals of all ages and sexes in the wild.
A breeding pair forms a group, which is then expanded by their children and other relatives. Before you allow an unknown gerbil into your pet gerbil’s personal space, you must ensure that you follow the proper socialization process to prevent your pet gerbil from getting aggressive or stressed about the presence of an unknown gerbil.
Additionally, access to your pet gerbils should be denied to other animals in the house. Gerbils can be stressed by the presence and smell of other animals in the house.
Gerbils are prey animals, and while they can develop acclimated to gentle handling, if they feel threatened, they may become terrified and violent.
What Should you Feed your Pet Gerbil?
Your pet gerbil should be able to source all the essential nutrition from its diet. Therefore, it is your responsibility to ensure you feed your pet gerbil the best and most nutritious foods.
A simple and handy way to ensure this is to buy a premium quality commercially available gerbil feed that is generally sold in the form of highly nutritious pellets or seed mixes.
Additionally, to prevent your pet gerbil from getting bored of its diet, you will also have to introduce some variety into its diet in the form of fruits and vegetables, and maybe, some insects.
Some fruits you can consider adding to your gerbil’s diet in moderation are pears, watermelon, oranges, and apples. Along with fruits, veggies such as pumpkin, cucumbers, and carrots also make for helpful additions to your pet gerbil’s diet.
How should you feed your gerbil?
The ideal manner to offer food to your pet gerbils is to simply spread the food onto your pet gerbils’ enclosure’s bedding. Along with preventing bickering between your pet gerbils, this will also aid in ensuring your gerbils secure opportunities to forage for food.
Encouraging behavior that comes naturally to gerbils, such as foraging for food, helps them stay mentally and physically fit. Gerbils have also been known to hoard food.
Therefore, you should make it a point to clean and examine their gerbilarium daily to remove any stale food items.
Common Health Problems to Look for in Gerbils
Generally, gerbils don’t face too many health issues. However, here are some common problems you might have to seek veterinary attention for to keep your pet gerbil healthy.
Issues with Gerbil Tails
Often, gerbils, in being curious, tend to get stuck in undesirable positions and end up injuring or even breaking their tails.
Heat Strokes and Stress in Gerbils
Even though gerbils are well equipped to deal with low temperatures, they might end up suffering from heat strokes due to extremely high temperatures.
Therefore, you must ensure your home stays in a temperature zone that’s comfortable for both you and your loving furball.
Common injuries in gerbils
Either due to aggressive play or while wrestling with unknown gerbils, your pet gerbil might end up scratching itself or breaking a bone due to a fall.
Common Illnesses in Gerbils
Issues like diarrhea, fever, and infestation of fleas and ticks can crop up in your pet gerbil.
Mental Shock in Gerbils
If a gerbil is dropped or surprised, it may experience shock, which can result in convulsions. Gerbils usually recover on their own, but it would be best to consult your vet in case your gerbil does go into mental shock.
Gerbil Reproduction and Life Cycles
Females begin breeding between 65 and 85 days of age (although the first estrus may occur as early as 35 days), and males begin breeding between 70 and 85 days. Gerbils are polyestrous and reproduce all year; ovulation happens on its own.
The estrous cycle lasts between 4-6 days. Although vaginal smears can be used to determine the stage of the estrous cycle, this method is rarely used because gerbils used as breeders are permanently partnered (they form stable, lifelong monogamous pairs).
Mating occurs mostly at night, but not always. The presence of sperm on a vaginal smear is a stronger indicator of mating than the formation of a copulatory plug, which is difficult to detect. Generally, the gestation period in gerbils lasts for about 25 days.
The gerbil animal can live to be 3 to 4 years of age, on average.
Interesting Facts About Gerbils
- There are over 100 types and breeds of gerbils in the world.
- The largest species of a gerbil, the Great Gerbil species, can grow to be a whopping 16 inches long.
- Gerbils clean themselves using sand rather than water.
Similar Pets to the Gerbil
Some pets that are similar to gerbils in terms of size and the amount of effort required to maintain them are hamsters, mice, rats, and chinchillas.
Before you choose to bring home any of these animals as pets, you must ensure that you have access to a veterinary practice that specializes in gerbil care or rodent care in general.
Gerbils make for excellent house pets. Due to their curious and intelligent nature, they can also be very entertaining to watch and be with.
As long as you can fulfill the living requirements and maintain a healthy diet while adhering to the other aspects of gerbil care that we have discussed in this comprehensive guide, you will be able to give your gerbil a happy forever home!
FAQs About Gerbils as Pets
Is Gerbil A Hamster?
No, the gerbil animal is not a hamster.
Is Gerbil a Rodent?
Yes, the gerbil animal is classified as a rodent.
How Much Does a Gerbil Cost?
Pet gerbils can cost about $10. However, some exotic breeds will cost more depending on their demand in the market.
What is the difference between a gerbil and a hamster?
The main point of difference between a gerbil and a hamster is that of size. Gerbils are longer and bigger than hamsters in general.