Gerbils make great pets. If you’ve been thinking about adding gerbils to your household and can safely do so, head down to your local shelter and give a gerbil a loving home.
With that said, you may be a little fuzzy on the details of gerbil care. That’s perfectly normal — there’s a lot to think about.
So here’s a handy guide to help you create a welcoming home for your gerbil.
When it comes to a gerbil habitat, go for sturdy and roomy.
“Think of your gerbils as intrepid explorers armed with a strong pair of hind legs and a sturdy set of incisors,” says the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Your natural curious gerbil wants to explore the world around her, even if it means leaving them comfy habitat. Gerbils can jump surprisingly well, are voracious chewers and love to dig. All of these personality traits need to be addressed when choosing your gerbil’s habitat.
Your gerbil needs a good-sized space to feel comfortable, and the size of the enclosure should increase if you bring home more gerbils. The American Gerbil Society recommends the following:
- 1–2 gerbils: 10 gallon tank
- 3 gerbils: 15 gallon tank
- 4 gerbils: 20 gallon tank
- 6 gerbils: 30 gallon tank
- If you choose a cage or plastic habitat, simply get the equivalent size. A 10 gallon tank would measure 24 x 9 x 13 inches.
You have a few options when it comes to choosing the right habitat for your gerbil:
- Good ventilation
- Easy to clean
- Bars allow for easy accessory attachment
- Easy to move/carry
- Gerbils frequently kick bedding out of cages
- Openings must be small — no more than a half-inch wide (or your gerbil may squeeze out)
- Shallow bottoms means gerbils can’t dig
- Gerbils can’t resist chewing on the bars
- Built-in tunnels and play areas
- Attractive/appealing to gerbil parents
- Easy to move/carry
- The plastic gets chewed on and destroyed
- The enclosure tends to smell
- Poor ventilation
- Often not large enough for 2+ gerbils
Check out these gerbils having some fun roaming free at home:
- Prevents young children or other pets from harassing your gerbil
- Glass sides allow viewing for your gerbil and yourself
- Glass can’t be chewed up, unlike wire or plastic
- Easy to clean
- Can be heavy to move
- Poor ventilation
- Water bottle requires special attachment
- Mesh cover must be purchased and kept firmly in place to prevent escape/harassment
In Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care, Donna Anastasi offers a few more tips:
“Gerbils need to live indoors in a moderate temperature range (68–78 degrees.) Since they come from a dry environment, living in a damp area like a basement is out. They’ll need a place away from drafts and direct sunlight and one that’s not too close to heaters or windows. Don’t put the housing directly on the floor where the temperature can fluctuate wildly. Your gerbils’ home needs to rest on a sturdy piece of furniture or a stand.”
It’s a lot to think about, so take your time choosing the right habitat and location for your gerbil.
Beyond providing comfort, bedding absorbs gerbils’ urine.
It also needs to be deep for dig-happy gerbils, so the American Gerbil Society recommends that you fill the enclosure one-third full with bedding material.
The best materials for bedding are Aspen, Carefresh and Corncob, all of which can be found at local pet stores or online. You can also use blank shredded paper, but it tends to get pretty smelly quickly.
Whatever you do, don’t use cedar or pine bedding — it can cause respiratory issues in gerbils.
Most water bottles will require a special clip to allow you to hang it safely from the gerbil’s enclosure. Check water daily for freshness and ensure that the bottle’s full.
Here are some more tips:
- Use an 8 oz. water bottle.
- Glass is great to keep your pets from chewing up the bottle, but plastic can work well too and is more commonly sold in pet supply stores.
- Make sure your gerbil can reach the sipper.
- Keep the tip of the water bottle well above the bedding area. “If the tip comes in contact with the bedding or other material it will drain out in a matter of hours. Even though gerbils are a desert animal they require clean, fresh water at all times,” advises the American Gerbil Society.
Now that the habitat’s set up, you’re well on your way to creating a comfortable and safe environment for your new furry friend.
Next in our pet gerbil care guide, we discuss feeding, handling and playing with new pet gerbils.
Now that you have your gerbil’s habitat ready, it’s time to talk about gerbil care.
Before bringing your gerbil home, ask questions about their current habits, from eating and sleeping to playtime preferences and more. This helps you keep things familiar for your gerbil as they make the transition to their forever home.
Food and Feeding
Many retailers sell pre-mixed gerbil food containing the minerals, protein, vitamins and bulk that your pet needs.
There are instructions on the brand packaging to follow regarding how much to feed your gerbil, but pay attention to their appearance over time as well. Gerbils — like people — love their fatty foods.
“Do not overfeed your gerbils,” warns Anastasi. “They may regulate the total amount of food they eat, but not the kind of food. In fact, if they’re being overfed they will search for and eat the high-fat goodies and leave the uneaten high-protein, low-fat pellets and grains.”
Gerbils don’t need a food dish — just place their food directly on their bedding and allow them to forage. Just remember to discard the food if it gets old or when you clean their habitat. If a dish is preferred, use one that’s heavy and, ideally, ceramic so your gerbil can’t gnaw it to pieces or tip it over.
Gerbils also enjoy snacks, such as:
- Sunflower and pumpkin seeds (not too many, though — these are high in fat)
- Apple pieces (no seeds, please — they contain cyanide)
Remember to check the habitat daily and remove any uneaten portions of fruit or vegetables so they don’t rot.
Toys and Play
Gerbils are crazy about playing. You can purchase gerbil toys at a pet store or online, but you can also just use some items from around the house. Your gerbil will love toilet paper tubes — they’ll spend hours running through it and gnawing it to pieces.
If you’re handy, build your own gerbil playground with holes and tunnels, but be sure to use untreated wood. Your gerbils will gnaw on the wood, so expect it to look “well loved” relatively quickly.
Handle With Care
When you first bring your gerbil home, they’ll be scared. After all, it’s a new environment filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells.
The HSUS recommends covering the habitat with a light cloth for the first few days to allow the gerbil to adjust gradually. Discourage people from picking them up and handling them. After the first few days, offer your gerbil a treat from your hand. Progress slowly to giving them little pats, then to picking them up. Every gerbil is different, so progress will vary.
Gerbils are also social animals. Once they acclimate to you, your gerbil will like being near you. They’ll also do better with other gerbils as playmates. If you’re worried about babies, get 2 gerbils of the same gender.
Children should be monitored closely when they interact with gerbils — often, they don’t realize that gerbils are fragile and, as Anastasi says, “A gerbil may be treated as an action figure rather than a living being. However, unlike GI Joe, GI Gerbil will battle back under duress. And repeated rough handling may cause your gerbil to develop a nipping habit.”
Adults may also mishandle your gerbil, so take precautions to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Check out this awesome maze built for a curious little gerbil:
Gerbils and the Law
Gerbils are actually still considered an exotic pet and currently illegal to have in Hawaii and California due to concerns about agriculture and the ecosystem should they escape.
“If you plan on vacationing in either one of these sunny spots…leave your gerbils at home,” says Anastasi.
Research your state and county to make sure gerbils are allowed. And research local veterinarians as well to find one with gerbil experience.
Many gerbils can be found in your local shelters, so be sure to check there first before visiting a pet store — which often overbreed animals to fill their “stock.”
If you’re looking for a pet that is funny, smart, engaging and fun, then a gerbil just might be perfect for you.