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Gerbils: tips for first time owners
Getting Your Gerbil:
When you first go to pick out your gerbil or gerbils try to locate a breeder. A good breeder with a healthy blood line means a much healthier pet with a longer life.
If you can’t find a local breeder you might want to try your local high school, sometimes science teachers will keep gerbils who will have pups that end up needing homes.
You can also sift through classifieds and even try Animal Control, your last resort should be a pet store or even worse, a chain store like Petsmart or Petco as these stores frequently sell sick and injured animals.
When picking out the actual animal(s) take your time and see as many as possible. You want to look for signs of illness, like red around the eyes, watery eyes, dry and cracked noses. Look for fur that shines, big bright eyes, a soft pink nose and slick long claws. If you see a gerbil with a patch of raw skin just above the nose don’t be too alarmed, this just means the gerbil has been kept in a wire cage (see ‘cages’). Also watch for behavior, you want someone who’s energetic but not wild, the gerbil should be willing to come sniff your hand without becoming afraid or aggressive, but a fearful gerbil is easier to tame then an aggressive one.
When it comes to cages I highly recommend glass aquariums with secure mesh-wire tops. Most stores that specialize in lizards and snakes will have the kind of cage I’m talking about. Not only are aquariums nicer looking then most ridiculous wire and plastic cages, but they are much harder escape from.
And any self respecting rodent will chew on the plastic siding daily in an attempt to escape. They will also more than likely try chewing on the bars, leading to a patch of hairless irritation on the snout, and possibly chipped teeth.
If you do decide to get a wire and plastic cage be sure to check on your pet daily to make sure it’s nose isn’t red or bleeding. Also check on the cage daily to be sure that your pet hasn’t started a hole in the plastic. Last but not least, no matter what cage you get, make sure it’s big enough. A 10gl aquarium is big enough for one gerbil (but I don’t recommend keeping just one), 20gl’s is big enough for three, 30gl’s is big enough for five and so on and son on… most wire and plastic cages look bigger than they really are, as the extra levels are small and often are chewed apart in only days. For these kinds of cages I think it’s best to have one pet per cage, the one good thing about these cages is that you can connect several, this does create a fun environment for your pet and great entertainment for you. Watching them run through the maze of tubes and tunnels is a lot of fun.
Water is simple, keep a bottle of fresh, clean water in the cage at all times; never use bowls as most gerbils will accidentally end up burying them when digging in their bedding. There’s also a good chance that they will tip over the bowl or try to dig the water out. This means wet bedding and/or a wet gerbil, either one can cause problems for your pet. If mold forms in the cage your pet might eat it which could be fatal for your gerbil. If the gerbil itself gets wet it could lower the animal’s body temp, causing this desert animal to get ill.
A healthy diet:
Most commercially available foods will do the trick if you need to quickly pick up something for your pet. I personally however don’t like those kinds of foods, the list of ingredients is usually as long as your arm, they’re filled with additives food coloring and other things that no pet needs to eat.
Gerbils are omnivores and will eat almost anything, I’ve fed mine everything from tofu to granola to fresh fruits and veggies.
Rather than buy bags of gerbil pellets I get large bags of high quality (preferably organic) bird and wildlife feed. This kind of feed usually has seeds and nuts and dried corn and peas, I then add all natural granola and dried fruit bits. This is the base of their diet. I also regularly supplement their diet with fresh produce and occasionally give treats of tofu, corn or potato chips. I’ve also been known to feed them right off my plate, as we have very similar diets (I’m a vegan).
I wouldn’t recommend feeding a gerbil meat as in my experience it usually causes them to either become constipated or in some cases causes diarrhea. It also seems to take away the shine in their coat.
Just like any other pet (except maybe fish) gerbils need your attention, they need to have fun. They might be able to get exercise on a wheel but that doesn’t make it fun. If you were locked in a little room with only a treadmill for exercise you’d probably go crazy with cabin fever. Everyone, human or animal, needs to get out and have a good time; we all need a little excitement in our lives.
One of the easiest ways to help your pet have fun is an exercise ball. Just let the gerbil in the ball, secure the lid and set it down. Always make sure that the area the gerbil is in is safe, that means no staircases to fall down, no larger pets (cats and dogs) that will try to play with the ball and no doors that will suddenly open and send your poor pet flying across the room.
If you have more than gerbil you’ll need a ball for each of them, two gerbils in the same ball doesn’t work well and the frustration of going nowhere can lead to a fight.
You can also clear an area for some free roaming, there are little mesh wire ‘play pens’ that you can set up to help keep your pet contained, but never leave them alone as they will more than likely climb out of it when you’re not looking. If you let them roam in a room make sure all doors and windows are closed tight, there are no wires or hazardous materials that could be chewed on, there are no other pets in the room, no possible escape routes, no tiny spaces to hide where you can’t get to them and last but not least make sure everyone in the knows that your pet is running loose in the room. You don’t want someone opening the door during playtime.
You also want to keep things in the cage that will keep your pet entertained. Things as simple as paper towel tubes and little cardboard boxes can be a lot of fun for a gerbil. There are also plenty of toys you can buy in the stores now too, logs, hide-outs, ladders are all easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
One thing you hear a lot about when on the topic of pet rodents is bedding. There is an age-old argument of what bedding is the best bedding. The choice ranges from woodchips to recycled cardboard, to cotton stuffing, sand, dirt, newspaper shredding and toilet paper. I like to use the wood based beddings, but even that can be confusing, there’s pine and aspen and cedar and so on. Cedar has a strong smell that most rodents don’t care for so I like to use either the pine or aspen, depending on what’s on sale and what store I’m closest to.
I also provide strips of paper (preferably unused copy paper with no ink on it) and the fur collected from brushing my dogs. This makes for great natural bedding that’s super soft.
The next thing you need is a place for your pet to make a nest. Nesting boxes should be simple and just big enough to fit however many gerbils you have. If the nesting box is too big it will probably end up being used as a bathroom.
Clean up time:
At least once a week you should clean out the bedding and replace it with fresh bedding. However when doing this general cleaning you should leave the nest alone, your pet(s) after all put a lot of hard work into it.
Once every two to three weeks you’ll want to give the cage a serious cleaning. While your pet is entertained running around the exercise ball, clear out the old bedding and nest. You’ll then need to clean the entire cage; aquariums are easy, spray it with a disinfectant, wipe it out, rinse it out and dry it off. You’re done!
Wire and plastic cages are a bit more difficult to clean. You’ll need to take the cage apart and clean each piece individually with disinfectant, rinse and dry them all and then re-assemble the cage.
After cleaning you can put all the toys back in and then put in fresh bedding and nesting materials. Don’t forget to also put in fresh food after cleaning. Now your pet can go back in.
This is just the very basics of gerbil care, the advice comes from someone who has owned gerbils for nearly 20yrs, has cared for dozens of gerbils and bred several of those.
If you need further information please feel free to e-mail me with question and comments: