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Breeding gerbils

Updated on January 6, 2018

We first looked after gerbils, following the stories that a primary school teacher had related to us about her own gerbils. We simply had to have some of these wonderful little animals and a little while afterwards came the desire to see these little creatures produce some offspring.

We can remember very clearly the wonders of first breeding gerbils, back in the 1990s, when my Brother and I watched the whole fascinating process unfold in our bedroom. The first litter though came as something of a surprise to us - as it does to many gerbil carers - mainly due the mistakes made by pet shops, who were apparently convinced of the gerbils sex.

To us, as enthusiastic and wide eyed teenagers, the only thing that filled our minds was the remarkable sensation of seeing the pups apparently defenceless in their nest and yet protected so efficiently by their parents.

Baby gerbils start out as cute little "riggly-pink-sleeves-of-flesh", but develop into miniature versions of their parents in the coming days, weeks and months. From the point when they are born to the time when they strike out on their own, every step will provide you with many points of joyful fascination, right there in your own homes.

Breeding gerbils is an educational experience, for all the family - especially younger ones. The rewards of breeding gerbils are simply amazing and the experience will fill you with the wonders of creation, regardless of whether you are six or sixty.

I hope to pass on some of these wonders, along with tips to help ensure that your gerbil breeding endeavours prove to be successful and safe for your little charges.

Breeding Gerbils - Points of Caution

Prior to embarking upon a breeding programme, you really need to decide what will happen to the pups after they are born. Are you going to be able to house the litter successfully yourself, or can you pass them on to responsible dealers and directly to new owners themselves?

Sadly, some people do not stop to make these important considerations and find themselves with an ever increasing stock of gerbils, without the means either to take care of them effectively or reliable avenues to pass them on for adoption.

So it makes a lot of sense to contact local and responsible pet stores, Schools, friends and relatives to find out - realistically - who will be prepared to take the offspring that are produced by your gerbils. If you find that there are limited ways to relocate such pups, caution should be exercised with regard to allowing breeding activity to commence.

Each year, animal welfare organisations around the world report that large amounts of pets have to be put to sleep, because of the increasing numbers of unwanted animals being produced by breeders.

Many animal welfare organizations encourage dog and cat carers to have their pets neutered to prevent an overpopulation of these species. Gerbil carers, throughout the world, can display similar restraint by ensuring that they do not produce unwanted gerbil stocks.

We know of gerbil carers who have offered young gerbils to snake keepers as food, because they cannot find homes for the pups produced. If somebody got to the desperate stage where they felt that such drastic action was required, it would have been after examining alternative methods of relocation first. Such an account provides caution to all potential gerbil breeders.

Also, while understanding that reptile carers need high protein food for their charges, using live young gerbils in such a way is probably terrifying for the pups, dangerous for the Reptiles - because gerbils can inflict terrible wounds on such animals in defence - and is really barbaric. If breeding had been prevented such a woeful course of action would not have become necessary.

Everyone agrees that breeding gerbils is a wonderful experience. But it should be accepted also that there are serious and weighty matters to be considered beforehand. Having thought things through carefully and honestly, you have a clear conscience, should you decide to indeed press ahead with your gerbil breeding programme.

How To Tell A Difference Between Male And Female Gerbils

Before you can start your breeding programme it is important to successfully determine the gender of your prospective parents. Many people have adopted gerbils of the same gender - mainly due to trusting pet store staff - and then sat there for ever more wondering why no pups arrive. Naturally, this is very frustrating.

Such a dilemma though can be avoided if we learn how to discern the gender of gerbils ourselves. Determining male and female gerbils can be reliably carried out from about the age of five to six weeks and simply involves carefully examining your gerbils underside. Your gerbils may object to being examined in this way, so care should be exercised when carrying out this procedure - to avoid undue stress.

So what should you look for? Firstly the male gerbil will have a clearly recognisable, bulging and virtually hairless scrotum, that is located just behind the hind legs, at the start of the tail.

The scrotum can be compared to a small bag in shape. In another sense the scrotum could also be compared to a coffee bean in shape. Hopefully using a combination of these two descriptions you should be able to recognise the male.

On younger gerbils the shape of the scrotum will be clearly defined and easily recognisable, but it will have a fleshy coloration. As the male gerbil matures the scrotum will become darker, though this does not apply to white gerbils which continue to have a pink scrotum throughout the whole of their lives.

Naturally, female gerbils will not have a scrotum and their reproductive/urinary openings are much less obvious to the naked eye. The features that you should notice clearly though, are the nipples that female gerbils have on their underside. These small teats are easy to spot from a very young age.

There is one point that should really clinch identification of male and female gerbils. The distance between the penis and anal opening is longer on the male (10mm) than the distance between the vulva and the anal opening on the female (5mm).

Once you have started to successfully determine the gender or your gerbils, it should be very easy to carry out identification in future. Never again will you have to rely on the (often faulty) judgement of others.

Breeding Gerbils: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Breeding gerbils, is not simply a case of throwing a male and female together and then quietly sitting back for the results. Well, not exactly. Careful preparation is vital, to ensure that you play your part in helping things to turn out successfully. After such measures have been carefully undertaken, you can then happily wait for nature to hopefully take it's course.

So, to start with you will need an enclosure with opaque sides that affords a fair measure of privacy and this should to be positioned at about 120 centimetres from the ground, in a fairly quiet and warm area of the home, that you can ensure is free of drafts.

It is important to take into consideration the space required to house the whole family, as the litter develops in the opening weeks. Thus choosing a large enough breeding enclosure from the outset will avoid problems later on. (It should be noted that you cannot change the breeding enclosure just prior to the birth or after the pups come along.)

You can put a wooden nest box, including a removable lid for inspection, into the enclosure. A box of this nature should always have room for the gerbils to easily come and go, taking into consideration the female's increased size as gestation progresses. Other enclosure furnishings can remain the same, though be careful to ensure that nothing will pose a danger to the pups when they start to explore. For example removal of any exercise wheels and any other mechanical furnishings may be prudent.

Balanced dietary provisions are important, both before mating activity starts and during the period of gestation, to ensure that your gerbils have all the nutritional elements they need.

I would recommend that the gerbils you choose for breeding should be strong, healthy and come from different stocks - to avoid the threat of inbreeding deformities. Such introductions should take place when the prospective parents are between six and ten weeks of age. Introductions at this stage tend to have a higher chance of acceptance.

Trying to introduce older gerbils - either as a breeding pair or as enclosure companions - very often leads to rejection, friction and ultimately violence. Mongolian gerbils will usually bond with a mate for life, so when you successfully introduce a pair of gerbils together, you are starting a major relationship.

Finally, I would advise against putting two females in with one male, because females are fiercely territorial and at some point fighting will break out, resulting in fatal injury - either to the one of the adults or to the pups, when the litter arrives.

Breeding Gerbils - Mating Activity & Gestation Period

Gerbils are fertile from about their ninth to twelfth week of age, and such sexual maturity will usually continue on until they are between 14 and 20 months of age. Research indicates that females come into heat every 4 to 5 days and this condition will continue for a period of about 12 to 14 hours.

It should be understood that gerbils are not machines, that run to some rigid timetable. Mating activity may start weeks or even months after the twelfth week for some pairings and it really is a case of just patiently waiting for everything to naturally unfold.

Mating activity will usually take place during the evening or at night and the smooth progress of this process can be aided by providing peaceful conditions in the vicinity of their enclosure.

Breeding activity will follow a characteristic routine, which involves the male gerbil pursuing the female around their enclosure and if there is acceptance the female will offer herself to the male.

The male will then mount the female and mating will last a matter of seconds until the male ejects his seed. This cycle of events will happen a number of times during the space of a few minutes and will be accompanied by the male gerbil drumming his hind legs - emphasising his excitement.

When you are fairly sure impregnation has taken place, start to add certain food items to this enclosure. The female's supply of nutrients will be put under strain during the gestation period, so providing protein rich foods and dry powdered milk makes sense.

Ensure that there is an abundance of nesting materials in the enclosure, at all times. At some point the female gerbil will start working hard, to produce a warm and secure nest for her coming litter.

Pregnant females can be difficult to discern, but careful inspection of the gravid female will reveal little lumps on her underside, especially in the period just prior to the birth. There may also be a difference in the size of the female gerbil as the pregnancy progresses.

The period of gestation will last up to 30 days, though normally this period will be between 23 and 25 days long. But, before you know it, the room where you keep your breeding gerbils will play host to the sound of a newly arrived litter of pups.

Gerbil Birth

Gerbils are usually born during the night or early morning, meaning that you will likely miss the proceedings. The first things that will normally alert you to the litter's arrival are the high pitched squeaking sounds of the pups and the male gerbil eagerly pursuing the female around the enclosure.

If you do get the chance to watch the birth of pups, it is an experience which will certainly stay with you. One sign in advance to watch for is the female licking herself around the area where the pups will appear. The female gerbil will also probably make an extra large nest in a certain part of the enclosure, just prior to the birth.

At the time of the actual event, the female will go onto her side, with her fur all on end and appear to gently shake while giving birth. After the first pup she will emerge and move around, again licking herself, until the process will start again for the next arrival.

You may notice some small traces of blood on the bedding where the pup is born, but do not be disturbed by this perfectly natural occurrence.

We said earlier that the male gerbil will pursue the female around just after the time of birth. This is because the female gerbil has a "postpartum oestrous" - and thus comes into heat a short while after the pups are born.

This reproductive activity will abate after a little while and may result in an immediate pregnancy, though for various reasons the period of this gestation may stretch to 42 days.

The sight of the female gerbil being pursued by the male may lead some carers to remove the male.

But this is an unwise move and unless the male is hurting the pups or causing injury to the female, it is vital the male remains in the breeding enclosure.

If you remove the male now the support that the female needs to care for the pups will be gone and reintroduction of the breeding pair later on will almost certainly be very difficult.

One thing is certain though; the male gerbil will find himself kicked out of the nest for the first night or so...

Gerbil Pups

So how about the pups themselves? What features will they be born with and what will need time to develop? Well, the pups will be born blind, deaf, without hair and minus any teeth. Upon closer examination, you will notice that they do have tiny little whiskers, along with a beautifully formed miniature tail and stumpy little limbs. They also have the ability to make pretty loud squeaking noises.

They are in a defenseless condition and will have to rely completely upon their parents for protection and sustenance. Both parents are very protective of their litter and will work constantly to ensure their safety.

On average between 4 and 7 pups will be born, though this number can be far greater in some instances. Statistics seem to indicate that the sex of these pups will be equally male and female. Gerbil pups measure about 2.5 centimeters in length and weigh roughly 2.8 grams when they are born

Because the pups are unable sustain their own body temperature it is important that the enclosure has plenty of nesting material. Make sure too that the breeding enclosure is in a warm and draft free area of the home.

It is a sad fact, that some pups will be born with deformities, which can take the form of a tail kink, chest problems or damaged limbs. These conditions may be the result of an unfortunate occurrence or due to inbreeding. Some pups may be stillborn, or die within a few hours of birth. These should be taken out of the enclosure when it is most convenient, though such removal should be carried out with haste after discovery. Regardless of the cause, surviving pups may require that the services of a vet to resolve lingering problems.

Finally, you will notice that we have produced a diagram of a gerbil pup below. This provides a handy educational reference that labels the different features and characteristics of a newly born gerbil pup.

We do not touch the pups during the first week and indeed leave things well alone, because all intrusions will stress the female at a time when she needs peace and quiet. That does not mean though that you have to abandon the enclosure, but your observations will need to be with care.

Under no circumstances should you transfer the pups or the adult gerbils to another enclosure in the early weeks after the birth.

Fatalities among the pups are almost certain if such a transfer is made, even if you move over some or all of the bedding and floor materials from the previous enclosure.

When you move gerbils to a new enclosure at any time, stress results and adult gerbils will take a while to readjust to their new surroundings, during which time care for the pups will be neglected.

The ears of the pups will open within about 4 days of their birth, making them a little more responsive to the world around about. Before you know it the pups will be venturing out of the nest by themselves, which usually results in the female picking them up in her mouth and shepherding them back where they belong. This attribute of the female gerbil, in particular, is very endearing and if you can capture this scene on film, it will certainly make a spectacular image!

The female gerbil's thirst will increase and you will notice many times when she is standing there taking a long drink from the enclosures mandatory water bottle. We also ensure that there are plenty of water-high fruit and vegetables available in the enclosure.

During this time we increase the high protein food ration and make sure that the food bowl is constantly full. In this way we ensure that the female has all the essential nutrients that she especially needs, while nursing the pups.

After about a week traces of hair will appear beneath the pups skin and after a short while this hair will become fully blown, though the eyes will remain firmly closed. Be careful when handling the pups, because they can easily jump out of your hands and cause themselves an injury.

When you routinely clean out the enclosure where the family resides, there are important points to bear in mind. Firstly, move the parents out of the enclosure for the duration of the clean, but carry this out quickly and then return the adults back.

Secondly, leave the bedding and pups in place - including where the nest is located in the enclosure - so that the female gerbil will be able to locate the pups by their scent after the cleaning is done. And Finally, return all the furniture and food bowls to the exact location they were prior to the cleaning being done, so that the adult gerbils will recognise the layout upon their return.

Gerbil Independence

After about 16 to 19 days the pups eyes will start to open and then their activity will become much stronger. At this stage they will be miniature versions of their parents, in a way that can be described as, "chips off the old block".

Weaning will occur almost naturally, so providing soft oats and fruit will help this process of transition between their mothers milk and the materials that will sustain them on into adulthood. Do not worry about putting food bowls on the floor of the enclosure, because the young gerbils should have no problems with jumping up.

The pups have a lot of "Cute Appeal", with their big eyes and rapid scampering about. They are not very balanced at this early stage and sway around while stopped, maybe eating oats or whatever. Their energy is tremendous and far out weighs that of their parents, who can struggle with this a little.

Dominance plays a big role in their behaviour and sparing to find the "top-dog" will start to show itself during this period. Do not concern yourself too much with this boxing activity, which is merely "hand-bags at dawn" stuff and not too serious.

These young gerbils will be on a great adventurous voyage of discovery and will want to examine everything and anything that comes their way. All the sights, sounds, tastes and sensations will be brand new and they will be enjoying every minute of it.

Young gerbils in particular will try out the hind leg thumping that their parents practice in times of danger, though for the youngsters it is just another case of fun time.

Once you start breeding gerbils the whole process can snowball very quickly and get out of hand. Separation of the different sexes becomes a priority before they become active in this regard, and at some point it could be advisable to separate the parents if your stocks of gerbils start to become unmanageable.

Breeding gerbils will result in the number of your enclosures increasing very rapidly, so ensure that they have the needed space for enjoyable lives. But, all said and done, breeding gerbils is enormously rewarding!

Gerbil Cannibalism

There are many theories concerning this distressing activity that surrounds gerbils and we have sadly witnessed some occurrences during the many years since we started looking after gerbils, which have always left us a little "Gob-Smacked" - for want of a better expression.

This shock comes mainly from the fact that the vast majority of gerbil pairings results in model parenthood from both the male and female gerbils, thus heightening the contrast when cannibalism breaks out.

Why? Well, until our understanding of gerbils increases there will not be a definitive answer to this and we are largely left groping at the existing information, which always opens the way to the "a-little-knowledge-is-very-dangerous" situation.

We have had happy family lines with newly introduced gerbils suddenly producing cannibals for no apparent reason. Is it down to the genes? Lack of protein? If it is a lack of protein, why does it not break out more often in other gerbils, fed in exactly the same way?

But what we do know is that there are some ground rules that are best to follow, thus ensuring that you as the gerbil carer, do your part in preventing the tragedy happening in the first place.

Know too, that cannibalism usually happens with pups that have already died, so if you find a problem in this area it could just be the way that the parent, or parents, are dealing with a fatality.

Many gerbil carers feel that the male gerbil will, by nature, eat the pups and that removal of the male from the enclosure is very important. Such a misconception comes mainly from certain books about gerbils providing poor and unhelpful information.

Taking the male out of the enclosure just after the birth of the pups can upset the female and may lead to her neglecting the pups as she tries to locate her mate, along with the fact that the female may need the male to help her effectively care for the pups.

Also if you do separate them, reintroduction may be difficult, because the female could at that time reject the male - which usually results in serious fighting, leading to the injury, and possibly death, of these gerbils.


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