How to Care for a Gerbil: Housing, Food & Health Advice

Updated May 5, 2022
Pet sable colored gerbil sitting comfortably in hand

Gerbils are popular and entertaining small pets. While they're not the cuddliest pets out there, they can make an excellent companion for the right owner. If you're considering adding one of these critters to your family, it's important to first understand how to care for a gerbil. From learning about the right type of cage to the best diet and even the proper way to hold these little pets, we'll provide you with the essentials of gerbil care so you can feel confident bringing your new friend home.

Gerbil Care Basics

If you're deciding whether to get a gerbil, you should know what to expect from these small rodents. The Mongolian gerbil is the most common species found in stores and kept as pets.

Lifespan

Your gerbil will live to be around 3 to 5 years old, based on the care you provide. With a high-quality diet, appropriate enrichment, and veterinary care when problems arise, your gerbil can live a long, healthy life. The oldest known gerbil lived to be over 8 years old.

Size and Appearance

Pet gerbils generally reach about 4 to 5 inches long, plus the length of their tail, which is an additional 3 to 4 inches. Their adult weight is 2 to 4 ounces; males are typically larger than females.

Gerbils resemble a mouse, though they have thicker tails with fur on them. Their tails are approximately the same length as their bodies. Ears are only slightly bigger than their eyes, and they have long, athletic hind legs. Gerbils come in over 20 colors, but golden, grey, black, and nutmeg are the most common shades.

Personality

Despite their small bodies, these pets have big personalities. Gerbils are active, friendly, curious, and self-assured. These busybodies rarely stop moving, so they're not particularly cuddly pets. However, gentle daily handling is important to strengthen the bond you have with your gerbil. They're not generally nippy but will resort to biting if they feel threatened.

Pet Mongolian gerbil

Gerbils thrive with companionship, so they must be kept with at least one other gerbil. Lone gerbils can become lonely and depressed. Therefore, most pet parents keep a pair of gerbils, either two females or two males. Keep in mind, if you have one of each sex, they will likely reproduce, and you will end up with an entire clan!

Activity Level

Unlike many other small pets who are more active during the night, dawn, or dusk, gerbils are diurnal. That means they are more active during the daytime, just like humans. Your gerbil will be alert and ready to play when you're awake, then will sleep through the night. Many owners appreciate this quality because they aren't awoken by the sound of a wheel in the night.

Mongolian Gerbil in his cage

Gerbils are very active creatures that can benefit from playtime out of their cages. However, they're also very small, fast, and curious, so it's easy for a loose gerbil to get lost in the house. Make sure you have a secure playpen in which they can run around and always supervise them. Many owners let their gerbils out for 30 to 45 minutes a few times each week.

What to Feed Your Pet Gerbil

Proper nutrition is essential to keeping your gerbil healthy. These small pets are omnivores, meaning they need both plants and protein. In the wild, they get this protein from insects, but in captivity, they can obtain it and other required nutrients from commercial gerbil diets. Supplement this with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Gerbil being fed by owner
  • Commercial gerbil diet: This should be the staple of your gerbil's diet. Most come in a pellet form or a mixture of pellets with seeds. Look for a diet that contains 13 to 16 percent protein and 6 to 8 percent fat. Each diet has unique nutritional content, so make sure to read the feeding directions provided by the manufacturer for exactly how much to feed your gerbil.
  • Fresh vegetables: Offer your gerbil a variety of vegetables daily. Feed these in moderation, as too much moisture from fresh foods can cause diarrhea. Safe veggies include lettuce, spinach, cucumber, carrots, broccoli, peas, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes.
  • Fruits: Fruit should serve as a treat and can be given a few times each week. Safe fruits include apples, berries, bananas, pears, and oranges. Cut these into small pieces before feeding to your gerbil.
  • Treats: You can give your gerbil the occasional treat. Choose a manufactured gerbil treat stick or special food items like pumpkin seeds, popcorn, cheese, cereal, or protein-packed snacks like crickets, mealworms, or boiled egg. Limit these high-calorie treats to keep your gerbil at a healthy weight.

You can feed them once each day or split their daily serving into two meals. Your gerbil will likely hide food away to find later when they're hungry. Keep in mind, these pets have similar nutritional needs to hamsters, so don't be alarmed if the bag says it's formulated for both gerbils and hamsters.

Foods to Avoid

Some fruits and vegetables are toxic to gerbils. Never feed your small pet the following food:

  • Avocado
  • Fruit seeds (like apple seeds)
  • Raw potato
  • Rhubarb
  • Grapes
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Chocolate

Methods for Feeding

Gerbils are natural foragers, so many experts recommend sprinkling their food directly on the bedding, sometimes referred to as scatter feeding. Some owners even take this a step further and hide their pet's food within the enclosure. This will allow them to find their food and enjoy it as they would in the wild. However, you can also place their food in a shallow ceramic bowl for feeding.

Part of being a forager is the habit of hoarding food. Your gerbil may hide food for later, then forget about it, so make sure you do a complete sweep of the cage daily. Any food that has gone bad should be removed and thrown away.

Water

You must always provide your gerbil with access to fresh, clean water. Most experts recommend a chew-proof water bottle for gerbils over a bowl or saucer. However, don't be alarmed if you don't see them drink as much as you'd expect. Gerbils are native to the highlands of Mongolia, which is a semi-desert climate. The species has adapted to these harsh conditions and doesn't drink as much water as other small pets. They also obtain moisture from fresh vegetables and fruits.

Proper Housing for Gerbils

Your gerbil will spend a significant amount of time in their enclosure, so you'll want to set up a safe and comfortable space.

Cage Material and Safety

Many owners use large aquariums or terrariums to house their gerbils. Plastic or glass is easy to clean and prevents these busy pets from chewing through the cage and escaping. Because they're such escape artists, it's critical to have a secure mesh lid over the top of the aquarium. Mesh will ensure there's enough airflow into the enclosed habitat. Entirely wire cages are also an option, but the bars must be close enough that your gerbil can't slip through. Avoid cages that have wire on the bottom, as paws and tails can get stuck and lead to injury.

Cage Size

Gerbils are active small pets and need spacious cages in relation to their size in order to burn off energy. A pair of gerbils need a minimum of a 20-gallon aquarium or terrarium, though larger is better. If you have more than two gerbils, add an extra 10 gallons for each additional pet. Any other cage must be at least 12 by 30 inches in size for a pair and increase for more individuals.

Ideal Temperature

Gerbils must be kept at a temperature between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so make sure you place their enclosure in a draft-free room that can maintain this temperature. If your home is cooler than 68 degrees in the winter, you may need to use safe warming techniques to keep them from getting chilled.

Bedding for Gerbils

Bedding is the name used for the material or substrate you'll use to line the bottom of your gerbil cage. Bedding is important because it gives your gerbil a soft surface to stand on, allows them to burrow and tunnel within, and absorbs their waste.

Paper-based products are the safest for gerbils. Shredded paper or small pet-specific products like Carefresh or Kaytee Clean & Cozy are great options. Line the cage with about 6 inches of bedding to provide enough space for your critter to burrow. Avoid using wood shavings (particularly pine or cedar, which release oils that are toxic to pets), sand, or kitty litter.

Pet Gerbil

Gerbil Accessories

Décor will look great in your gerbilarium, but it's also important to enrich your pet. Give your gerbil at least one dark hide that is large enough for them to stand up in and store food. You can buy special hideouts at the pet store, though small cardboard boxes can work in a pinch. However, know that they'll most likely chew it to shreds.

Gerbils are undeniably big chewers. Chewing keeps them busy and calm, and keeps their teeth healthy. You'll need to provide them with materials designed for chewing, otherwise they'll resort to gnawing on their cage. You can give them natural, untreated wood like apple or willow. However, never give a gerbil pine or cedar wood or anything plastic.

Energetic gerbils can also benefit from an exercise wheel. A solid wheel spinner is the safest choice, so your pet won't get their feet caught between wires while they run. Because gerbils need such deep bedding, it's best to hang the wheel from the screen top of the aquarium, so it's just an inch or two above the bedding.

Gerbil Grooming

Gerbils should never have a water bath. Instead, you'll need to treat your gerbil to a sand bath every week. This is the type of bath they enjoy in the wild and the best way for a gerbil to keep their skin and fur healthy. A sand bath is similar to the method for a chinchilla dust bath, though you'll need to use gerbil-safe sand.

Cage Cleaning Requirements

Gerbils are notoriously less messy than many other small pets, though they do require frequent cleaning.

  • Do a once-over of the cage every day to remove any waste-soaked bedding and top off as needed.
  • Perform a daily sweep of any hidden and spoiled food.
  • Replenish water daily.
  • Completely change out the substrate and refresh with new bedding weekly.
  • Every three weeks or more often, do a deep clean of the habitat and all accessories. Use a special habitat cleaner or diluted pet-safe disinfecting spray.

Signs of Illness in Gerbils

With a nutritious diet and healthy habitat, your gerbil should thrive. However, unexpected illnesses can occur. The following symptoms indicate your gerbil is sick and needs veterinary care:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overgrown teeth
  • Weight loss
  • Discharge from nose or eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unusual swelling or lumps
  • Hair loss
  • Excessive scratching
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stool

Gerbil Tail Safety

While it might be tempting to grasp your gerbil by the tail if you have difficulty catching them, avoid the urge. You can be left with the tail in your hand and a loose and severely injured pet. Gerbils can experience a condition called tail slip or tail degloving, where the skin of the tail slips off, exposing the delicate tissues underneath.

Treatment for tail slip involves veterinary surgery to amputate the exposed piece of tail. Preventing this condition is the best course of action. Always handle your gerbil gently and never grasp, pull, or pick them up by the tail.

How to Care for a Gerbil

When you bring your new gerbil home, give them three or four days to get used to their environment. Provide them with ample food, water, and places to hide. After this initial period has passed and your pet seems comfortable in their new environment, you can begin interacting with them. Offer a small piece of their favorite food each time, and you'll be on your way to building a bond with your small pet that will last for years to come.

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How to Care for a Gerbil: Housing, Food & Health Advice