Gerbils Make Enjoyable Pets
My personal experience with gerbils
This page is not about how to look after gerbils. There are enough places where you can find this information, as I will let you know later.
No, this page is about my own experience with these endearing rodents. For example how it happened that a single male suddenly got pups. Or how I took care of a pup that refused to grow, or how I found out how far they can jump, or ... well, as you will see, this page is on how I looked after my gerbils in a somewhat unusual way.
Despite everything, I'm sure they loved to live with me, for they all lived until the grand old age of more than three years.
The black-and-white pictures below I took myself at the time (in 1969-70) with a cheap camera. I digitalised them by taking pictures of the photo's with my digital camera.
My first gerbil
When I was in my teens, in 1969, I saw my first gerbils in the house of a friend, and I fell in love with them, immediately. So I decided I wanted them, too. But, my mum being afraid that there would be many in a short time, allowed me to buy only one.
In the pet shop, I asked for a male, so as to be certain that it would remain the only one. The lady working there, turned several gerbils upside down to look and finally said: 'This is a male.'
I took it home and put it in the new cage, that my dad had made, and gave him the name Sidi Ahmed. As you can see in the picture, a wonder happened.
It was the very next day, I was still in bed, when my mum entered my bedroom and looked into the gerbil cage.
'Aahh!' she said.
I was immediately alarmed. 'Is he dead?'
'On the contrary. He has babies.'
I jumped out of bed and looked. There I saw my 'male' with four pink pubs. So cute!
Is that a wonder, or not? Amazing, really, that someone working in a pet shop cannot see the difference between a male and a - highly pregnant! - female gerbil.
The pups grow up
The pups grew well, they grew a fur and then their eyes opened. I often let their mom walk on the roof of the cage, on which she could climb via a ladder.
One day, when all of her pups could see, they decided to climb after mom to the roof. What then happened, astounded me: the first pup walked straight on to the edge and ... went on! It fell off on the table on which the cage was standing. As it had never before encountered a precipice, it did not know that you could fall off something. Of course, I took care that the other pups didn't follow their brother's or sister's example.
My dad made a bigger cage for them, with a second floor on which I could place the trays with food and water. I didn't use a bottle, but a tray. Unfortunately, gerbils always hide their food under the wood shavings and they also threw wood shavings on top of the water tray. Now, with the tray standing high and dry, they always had water, instead of a tray full of soaky wood shavings, as you can see on the picture.
I also gave them small cuts of cloth. This all of them, mom and the four babies, carried to the place below the 'floor', where they pulled the pieces apart until only threads remained. From this, mom made a wonderfully soft and warm nest! Sometimes, when they were all just awake, I put my hand inside the nest and felt for myself how lovely soft and warm it was.
Three lovely gerbil pups
One pup moves away, another doesn't grow
I didn't want to keep all of the gerbils, so I gave one of the pubs away to the friend who already had a few gerbils. She wanted a male, so I gave her one which I thought was a male, but which later turned out to be a female. (I could not see any difference between the four pups; in hindsight, they must all have been females).
One of the pups did no longer grow after it got weened. After a while it could not sit up to eat, so I fed it with oatmeal or bread, soaked in milk. This it could lick up, without the need to sit on its hind legs. Whereas the other two grew bigger and bigger, this one never grew a millimetre and finally it died.
As my friend had told me that the pup I had given her was a female, I feared that the ones I had kept were males. However, they never behaved like males and I never got more pups. So, as I mentioned above, they most likely were females, too.
I often let the three of them out of the cage. In the picture you see them walking and climbing on my parent's sofa. It must have been winter, as the cage was in the living room instead of in my bedroom: in winter it was rather cold in my bedroom.
Oh, and I gave the remaining pubs names: Abdul and Hassan (well, I thought they were males).
When the cage was in my bedroom, I let the gerbils walk on my bed. There was no risk: these rodents won't pee or poop on the bed, they are much more behaved than rats and mice! In fact, I knew when they were in need, for then they sat right on the edge of the bed, with their face in the direction of the cage (which was at the other end of the room!) and sniffed nervously. As soon as I put it back in the cage, it ran to the 'toilet corner' and did what it had to do.
Yes, that is right, they have a 'toilet corner' in their cage. They don't do their thing at any odd place, no, just in one chosen corner, and they all go there and nowhere else.
I heard that it is a good idea to put sand in one corner of the cage. This they will prefer as a toilet.
A gerbil in its nest - My gerbils had a very similar nest
I knew gerbils could jump well, but how far? To find that out, I devised an experiment.
I placed a stool with a cloth-covered, soft seat against my bed. On this I put the gerbils one by one, and they simply walked back onto the bed. Once they got used to the stool, I placed it a little away from the bed and put the gerbils on it again, one by one. They jumped to the bed. Further and further I placed the stool and always, the animals jumped back.
From a certain distance, I can't remember which, they hesitated before they jumped, and finally there came the moment that they didn't dare to jump anymore.
I recall the furthest distance the champion (Sidi Ahmed) was able to jump was a little over 60 cm. Abdul was not far behind, but Hassan, who was the smallest, managed only a little short of 50 cm. And, rest assured, neither of them ever fell on the floor.
Gerbils are also good high-jumpers
The last months ...
One day, quite unexpectedly, little Hassan was dead. She was three years old. Despite her allergy that caused her to sneeze each and every day, she had always had a good appetite and had been as lively as the other two.
A few months later, Sidi started to show old-age problems: sometimes she fell over when she sat on her hind legs eating, or, when descending the ladder, she occasionally fell off. She also lost weight (I occasionally weighed them on a letter-balance) and one day I found her dead.
Abdul, who was still Health itself - a fur that shone like that of a youngster, sparkling black eyes, lively, friendly - changed dramatically after Sidi's death. Nervously, she searched through the cage, but found no Sidi. In earlier days, when I had picked her up and she wanted me to put her down again, she simply put her teeth softly against my finger; she never really bit. Now, she started to bite me. Not hard, but harder than she had ever done before.
And then she began to run in circles. I found it horrible to watch her doing that and by then I knew that she wouldn't live much longer. As a matter of fact, she died six weeks after Sidi. In just six weeks, she had turned from a healthy gerbil into a sad wreck.
I knew that gerbils cannot live alone, as they are highly sociable animals. Loneliness had driven poor Abdul mad and sick and had eventually killed her.
What did I feed them
Apart from the main food, a seed mix for hamsters that I bought in the supermarket, I occasionally fed them the following:
- Old bread
- Oatmeal in milk - this they thought a real treat.
- Half an apple
- Grapes - these they loved!
- Pieces of carrot
- A wasp. This was an accident. The wasp flew into the cage and mom, to my fright, caught it and ate it with relish, without being stung.
- Chicken kidney - an absolute favourite of all three of them. I had to take off the tough skin, but then they devoured it.
- Cheese. Only Hassan was very fond of cheese. So fond, that she would wake up from the smell and rush out of the nest, sniffing excitedly. The other two couldn't be bothered.
- Boiled egg. I was told that gerbils like to eat this once in a while. My gerbils pulled their noses up for it, so I never gave it again