baby gray agouti gerbils

Gerbils are fun and make great pets

They are energetic and curious, quick to investigate new sights and sounds. When they're not eating or sleeping, they're probably working hard doing something! Unlike hamsters, they don't sleep all day. They are awake most of the day, alternating with naps, and the same at night.

Mongolian gerbils are originally from Mongolia, of course, and also found in nearby countries in semi-desert areas. Other species of gerbils are not often kept as pets.

Mongolian gerbils have been bred in captivity since 1935, when some were captured from the wild and used in labs. Soon enough they made their way into homes as pets. Today we have many colours in addition to the original wild golden agouti. New colour mutations happen more often these days, and even different coat types like wavy and rex have appeared.

Siamese gerbil, Chance Gerbils are social animals. In the wild they live in family groups including more than one generation of pups. Just like people, they appreciate company. And like people, the occasional oddball would just as soon be a hermit. For many of them, being forced to live alone for a long time could be a bit like living in a prison cell. Gerbils are best kept in groups of two or three.

Happy gerbils are gerbils with lots of fun things to do. They love digging. Bedding as deep as 12 inches (30 cm) will allow for their tunnel building projects. Digging will wear down their nails so they should never need clipping. Chewing is an other essential activity so as to keep their constantly growing teeth in good trim. They will appreciate all the toilet paper tubes, boxes, crumpled paper and other chewable toys their thoughtful owners give them. Most also like to come out of their homes to play.

Blue gerbil balancing on a glass jar, ready to chew her paper Gerbils are "green" pets. Many items that you would otherwise toss in the garbage can see a second life as gerbil toys. All sorts of cardboard and paper will be eagerly reduced to tiny shreds in the gerbil cage. Paper towel and toilet paper tubes are obvious favourites, but plain cardboard cereal and cookie boxes are also ideal. Sensitive documents and no shredder? Well, let your gerbils reduce them to unreadable form! Newspapers are printed with non-toxic ink and provide gerbils with all sorts of noisy fun if you crumple up the page first. Pages from old phone books are also good.

Besides chew toys, glass jars left over after your jam or pasta sauce is used make great cozy hideouts. Wash them well, and let them soak in hot soapy water until the label comes off easily. Your gerbils will love them. Many gerbils will use a jar as a potty. Change the bedding less often and just wash the jar regularly.

Nutmeg gerbil molting Gerbils, like people and dogs, have individual personalities. Spend time watching them and playing with them. You'll get to know each one well and be able to spot anything unusual right away.

If you have several gerbils, you might notice they have different favourite activities. Some are dedicated diggers and their chew toys may last a while. Others love chewing best, shredding things quickly. Those gerbils may also find ways to quickly destroy water bottles, especially plastic ones if they can reach them (wrap bottles in hardware cloth if necessary). There are even gerbils who quite enjoy practicing their jumping skills. Rarely, a gerbil will learn the special feat of climbing on the underside of their tank lid.



glass aquarium with hardware cloth top used as a breeding tank
Glass aquarium used as a breeding tank; hardware cloth top

Great gerbil homes include tanks (aquariums, but need not be waterproof), and plastic storage bins that have been modified for gerbil use.

The plastic tube systems used for hamsters make lovely playgrounds for gerbils while supervised. But whatever the pet store staff tell you, gerbils left to themselves in them will eventually chew their way out.

A tank used for gerbils must have a lid. Some gerbils are expert jumpers, and with practice can learn to jump much higher than you might think. One of our gerbils could hop over barriers two feet high with ease. Be sure your lid attaches securely or is heavy enough to not be pushed off.

For adequate ventilation, most or all of the lid should be of a strong wire mesh-type material. It's called hardware cloth in stores. Screen door mesh is too thin and can be chewed through.

typical bin cage Plastic storage bins, like those made by Rubbermaid and Sterilite, can also be converted, and are much less expensive than glass tanks. They are also lighter and easier to carry and to clean. Detailed instructions for building plastic storage bin cages here.

If you can't make a proper lid, you can use a plain, large piece of hardware cloth over the top. Cut it several inches bigger than the opening and fold the corners tightly. Use alligator clips to be sure the lid can't be knocked off.

As for size, recommendations vary, but in general bigger is better. Gerbils are happier and healthier when they have lots of space. In tanks, a minimum of 20 gallons will do for a pair. If you can find a 40 gallon tank your gerbils will be even happier.

Plastic storage bins are cheap, so there is no use being too stingy with space. Longer and wider (more floor space) is more useful than lots of height. You can get by with as small as an 85 liter bin if you get the long 35" style. Remember you do need at least 12 inches of height so they can build good burrows. A bigger bin is always better.



plastic bin half filled with bedding
Plastic bin half filled with bedding, complete with tunnels and 3 gerbils

After years of experimenting with beddings, we've found a mix of different types works better than any one kind. The bedding tends to hold tunnels together better when different materials are combined. Some options include Eco-bedding (aka Eco-Packing), aspen, Carefresh, shredded newspaper and scrap paper, wood pellets, and hay. Aspen shavings absorb urine and smells better than other beddings and so can go longer between cleanings. Aspen is also good for chewing. Some tissue is a nice addition so they can build a cozy nest to sleep in. Watch for dust in the package of whatever kind you buy... it makes a terrible mess and some gerbils develop allergies if it's too dusty.

storage bin cage with lots of bedding Bedding will need to be changed when it starts to look dirty or acquires an unpleasant smell. Gerbils produce little urine, so their cage should never smell bad. How often you need to change depends largely on how deep it is and how humid your climate is. Very deep bedding, filling the cage nearly to the top, provides excellent burrowing opportunities for the gerbils, and may remain clean for quite a while. A thin layer on the bottom of the cage, however, may need to be changed more often as droppings and dust tend to accumulate there. Deep bedding is no more expensive in the long run than a thin layer.

When cleaning the cage, it's good to save a little bit of the old bedding rather than replacing all of it. Having something in their cage that smells like home will be reassuring to the gerbils and reduces the potential for fighting.



Lexi having a run on a wheel

Some gerbils are runners, and love a great workout if they have a wheel. Other gerbils could not be bothered with wheels, and may even hurt themselves on them. If you want to give them a wheel, it's best to start with gerbils who have learned to use one when young. Later, without another gerbil demonstrating the technique, they may not figure it out (or bother to try). A wheel is not mandatory. We like to give gerbils who are living alone a wheel to help make up for the lack of playmate.

Wheels composed of parallel bars have the potential to cause injury to tails or toes, especially if the gerbil has not been well trained by experienced gerbils in their use. Mesh wheels are safer. In any case, only metal wheels are practical for gerbils. Plastic ones will be chewed up, later if not right away. Young pups don't chew as much as mature gerbils.



pup enjoying a carrot

Gerbil food containing a mixture of grains and seeds should provide most of the nutrients your gerbils need. Do check the label though. Growing gerbils, as well as pregnant and lactating females need a richer diet with more protein and fat than suitable for adult and elderly gerbils. As much as 18-20% protein is appropriate for the very young and nursing moms. Adult and elderly gerbils will live longer healthier lives if their protein is limited to 13-15%. Too much protein can cause kidney problems. Pellets come with added vitamins and minerals for complete nutrition, but make a better addition to a grain base than a complete diet. Many gerbils don't care much for pellets.

Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are particular gerbil favourites, but are high in fat. Fat content should be limited to 5-7% for all but the very young and lactating moms. Mixes with many coloured bits and fruits might look good to you, but may be too high in sugar and lead to unhealthy gerbils.

glass water bottle with metal holder

Limited amounts of fresh vegetables and fruits (except citrus) are excellent supplements to the basic diet. Broccoli, carrots, romaine lettuce (and other leafy greens) and cucumber are popular with our gerbils. Unsweetened breakfast cereals like Cheerios and puffed grains make wonderful treats as well.

Most gerbils will naturally bury their food. This is normal! Anything they don't eat immediately is put away for later this way. If you sprinkle their food in their cage instead of using a food dish, foraging for buried food later will provide them with an enjoyable activity. To make the most of foraging, feed only every 2 - 5 days, but do give them enough to last! About a tablespoon per gerbil per day is about right, but do keep an eye on them. If they're looking thin or seem hungry, feed more. If they're getting excessively chubby or you notice much leftover food when you change the bedding, cut back a bit. But no need to worry too much about their weight though. Some will grow tubby over time naturally while others stay trim. This is normal.

glass water bottle with metal holder

Water must be available at all times. Plastic small animal bottles are inexpensive, but it can be a challenge to keep them from being chewed. Glass bottles with metal parts will last a long time, if you can find them.

You may also need a holder to attach the water bottle to the tank, depending on your configuration. Metal holders will obviously last longer than plastic. Hardware cloth can be wrapped around the bottle to protect plastic bottles from being chewed.

For the water bottle to dispense correctly, it's important to fill it right up to the brim. Don't leave any air space or the bottle may drip. Screw on the top, turn it over and tap the sipper end several times, or shake it, to make sure water dispenses. If not, start over. Check this every time you fill it and test the water bottle every day (or replace the water daily). The mechanism can jam so it doesn't release water and your gerbils will go thirsty or die.

Other things to watch for with water bottles is bedding getting piled up against the sipper. If this happens, the water may drain from the bottle and leave you a tank full of soggy bedding. Wet bedding must be replaced immediately. If you put a glass jar on its side beside the water bottle, the sipper is less likely to be buried as the gerbils want to leave the entry to the jar bedding free.


new gerbils

Baby gerbils So you've decided to get your first gerbils! You are getting more than one, right? Examine them carefully for health and temperament before you fall in love. Few things are more disappointing than buying new pets only to watch them die days or weeks later. Healthy gerbils have smooth shiny coats, bright eyes and an active, inquisitive nature. They have firm, solid droppings and clean bottoms.

Let them climb around in your hands: never buy a gerbil that bites! Gerbils with good temperaments do not bite people, except in the most extreme circumstances. Sometimes they will nibble gently to taste your fingers, but this doesn't hurt and does not count as biting. You'll know if you've been bitten!

If you're nervous about holding a gerbil, or if the gerbil seems at all skittish, rest the gerbil on one hand while gently holding the base of the tail with the other. Never hold the tail anywhere except right next to the body. In this position you can also lift the back end briefly to check the gender. When buying a same sex pair, both bottoms should look the same. Don't trust pet store staff on this; countless people have found themselves with an unexpected litter after buying what they thought were two gerbils of the same gender.

If you already have gerbils and are bringing home more gerbils, you should quarantine the new arrivals for at least two weeks. Moving from place to place is stressful, and stress-induced illness is apt to break out soon after arriving in a new home. Keep your new gerbils in a separate room and wash your hands before and after touching them.

gerbil in a jarAfter you bring the new arrivals home to their prepared cage, let them settle in for a couple of days to get adjusted to their new surroundings. Put one hand in their cage occasionally and offer a few sunflower seeds or Cheerios. Soon they will associate your hands with good things and will eagerly come to see what you have every time. After they're comfortable approaching your hand, use two hands to scoop up one gerbil at a time and hold it above the cage. Let it wander over your hands and arms, moving one hand in front of the other as it explores. An even easier way to take a gerbil out of the cage is to encourage it go inside a jar, then pick up the jar with the gerbil in it. You can then hold your hand at the mouth of the jar until it's safe to venture out and explore. A jar is also a good way to transport your gerbil safely one place to another.

Another great bonding activity is to take your gerbil in a jar and climb into your (dry!) bathtub. Your gerbil can then safely crawl around all over you as you get to know and trust each other.


kids and gerbils

Playing with a gerbil after a day at the fair Caring for pets together, parent and child working as a team, is a wonderful bonding activity. The memories will last for a lifetime, as will the skills and sense of responsibility.

Many parents mistakenly believe their child can have one, and only one, pet. The theory is that they must prove themselves capable of looking after one before earning the right to have more.

Choosing a naturally social species like gerbils is great because social animals LIKE to interact with others, and that usually means they like interacting with humans too. However, if a naturally social gerbil is kept alone, it is likely become lonely and depressed. Lonely and depressed gerbils will not be interested in their surroundings or their owner, and inevitably, will become boring, neglected pets. This is not unexpected, and is most disappointing all around.

I would suggest that a minimum of two social pets will more likely maintain a child's interest over time. Two pets are more likely to be well cared for than one, because they are alert and active, and will respond to and play with their owner. When the pets are fun and interesting, they get more care and attention. As with all things children are responsible for, their activities should not only be supervised by an adult, but better yet, the parent is best involved as well. The amount of parental oversight needed will depend on the maturity level of the child, of course.

Keep in mind that if gerbils are kept in excessively small habitats, they may spend almost all their time digging pointlessly in a corner or chewing on the bars until the hair rubs off their noses. This is just like zoo animals that paced back and forth all day when they used to be kept in small cages. These behaviours are called stereotypies.

Now we know better. Zoo animals now get decent sized natural habitats where they can behave as nature intended. They are far more interesting to watch behaving naturally than pacing back and forth! Gerbils too should have roomy, pleasant homes filled with new and interesting things for them to do. Watching them will provide hours of entertainment for young and old alike!

young pups

adopting from us

Occasionally we have gerbils of various ages available for adoption. Please ask about availability. Pups are sold in pairs or trios, unless you have a lone gerbil at home to introduce to the newcomer.

We are pleased to ship, but please be aware that this is very expensive as they must travel by air. It's not something you're likely to want to do for one pair of pet gerbils. Consider getting together with a group of local gerbil lovers to order several if you're not within driving distance of Regina.

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