There are many things that we do not understand about gerbils, but the experience of gerbil carers has provided important insights into their general behaviour. Anyone who spends time observing their gerbils will be able to learn much in this area.
Gerbils are naturally clean animals and carefully groom themselves to retain that clean cut appearance. They use their paws and tongue to clean their bodies all over and keep their fur in good condition. You can help your gerbils in their quest to keep their fur conditioned by providing a low sided bowl of children's play-pit sand for the enclosure.
Your gerbils will roll over in this sand in a manner similar to the way horses roll over. To help gerbils grooming it is important to avoid any significant humidity or dampness in the enclosure, which will be detrimental to the fine appearance of their fur.
Affection Between Gerbils
Linked closely to grooming is the affection that exists between gerbils of the same community. gerbils may often seem to have tensions between themselves, only to suddenly stop and groom each other, a behavioural trait that seems very odd at times. When laying in their nests, snuggled together, displays of affection are common. You may notice one laying on it's back and another, seemingly still asleep, start to lick the first one and groom it.
I have particularly noticed the way that gerbils in a community will take responsibility for cleaning the pups. Gerbil mothers will do this as a matter of course, but the other members of the community joining in makes the bond that exists certainly stronger in our view and makes this one of the key areas to our understanding gerbil behaviour. In one enclosure, made up of four female gerbils, one had a litter of pups and we kept a careful eye on the way things developed. Again and again our observations resulted in each female taking turns in licking the pups all over.
Relationships Between Gerbils
The relations between gerbils can be very affectionate. But the reverse can be true too! Gerbils love a good old game of tag and chase, all of which are mainly friendly.
But they will often quarrel with each other and have exchanges where they come close to blows, though it is rare that any damage is exchanged between members of the same bonded community. Damage though can and will be severe between gerbils that are strangers to each other.
Domination is important between gerbils and young pups start the process of establishing "top-dog" within about four weeks of their birth. Sparring will be observed as the pups start to challenge one another over food and minor squabbles will result.
Some gerbils can become very dominant and this is true of "Snow" and "Flake", my two white male gerbils who reside together in their own enclosure.
Right from the off they were dominant among the other pups and would squabble with anybody that got in their way. Now they are fine together and show affection like a pair of puppy-dogs, but introduce them to other gerbils and the result is near carnage!
Gerbils thump the ground with their hind legs in a rhythmic "tat-ta-tat" effect. This is usually to warn other gerbils of danger, though is also employed when sexual activity is taking place. Young gerbils seem to do this thumping too, though they are probably merely learning the action rather than warning everyone of danger. Some noises in the home will sound to your gerbils like other gerbils sounding the alarm. I have found that using a keyboard or the clicks of a computer mouse can start off the familiar thumping from the enclosures.
Gerbils are very quiet animals, because stealth is one of their main defences against predators in the wild. A high pitched sound though does usually result when fighting or squabbling takes place. Pups also make high pitched sounds in their nest from the time of their birth.
Like other rodents, gerbils will chew just about anything and everything. Their sharp front teeth are very well designed to allow such activity, which is a natural part of their every day lives.
You should provide things in your gerbils enclosure for them to chew on, such as blocks of wood, mineral blocks and cardboard. Indeed, introducing a cardboard box into a gerbil enclosure usually triggers a frantic period of chewing by all the gerbils, eager to demolish the latest offering. Gerbils are not able to destroy wooden blocks so easily, but given a short time they have the clear markings of determined gnawing.
Pups, from a very young age, can jump very well with the help of their powerful hind legs. Any notion that food will be inaccessible if placed high up is very wide of the mark and if this were true our pups would regularly die of starvation! Young gerbils have no problem at all jumping and manage this better than many other movements.
Adult gerbils jump very well and I have witnessed their ability to jump up to twelve inches (30 centimetres). But gerbils will not use this ability often and may go for a long time without employing it at all. One main reason that prompts gerbils to jump is if they are placed into a small, confined area as I found out one day when cleaning out some gerbil enclosures.
I put two Gerbils temporarily into a bucket that had twelve inch sides and did not place anything on the top, thinking that there would be no way that they could get out. Little did I know! I carried on cleaning out the enclosure until I noticed that the two gerbils were jumping above the level of the buckets rim and would have got out if we had not placed a cover on just in time. As stated previously, young gerbils in particular are very strong jumpers. Care is needed when handling such young pups - even before their eyes open - because they will jump out of your hand without warning, resulting in possible injury
Gerbils scratch and burrow in their natural habitat all the time in their quest to locate food and dig into the ground to make homes and extensions of such living areas.
One look at the nails on their forefeet, shows why gerbils are so effective in this regard. Such sharpness allows gerbils to burrow not only through soft materials, but also harder items too. With their short forepaws they make rapid motions in their attempt to burrow through an area and you will observe this especially in the corners of their enclosure.
If you provide a deep enough layer of wood shavings in the enclosure, mixed with a dust free hay material that helps to bond the shavings together, your gerbils will construct tunnels with their burrowing. Gerbils love this activity, because naturally they would do this, constructing deep and complex tunnel systems. I have set up large one and a quarter enclosures with a deep layer of shavings and after a while the gerbils disappear below the surface - though if you tap the side of the aquarium glass up will pop your Gerbils heads, keen to investigate the source of the noise.