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Gerbils

By Craig Sernotti

Gerbils are ideal small pets who entertain their owners with their cute and captivating habits. Affectionate and lively, they will recognize that their owners and will learn that you represent food and playtime.

Including their tails, gerbils measure about 9 inches (23 cm) in length. They have large eyes that help them see when foraging at night. They hoard food and burrow. Gerbils communicate with one another by squeaking and by thumping their back legs. They should be kept in pairs—a single gerbil kept by himself will be unhappy and won’t thrive. A pair should be purchased when they are young because adults can be territorial. If you keep a male and female together, expect your pets to constantly have babies. Gerbils live two to four years, but some occasionally live to be five years old.

Natural History

There are at least 80 known species of gerbil. Most live in arid climates in desert habitats throughout Africa, parts of Europe, and across Asia into China. Wild gerbils are well adapted to the extreme temperature fluctuations between day and night and between winter and summer.

Gerbils have been bred in captivity for more than 70 years, and scientists consider them to be domesticated. They now breed throughout the year (originally they only bred from February to October), have grown larger, and are no longer timid and nervous.

Enclosures and Setup

A gerbil setup is similar to one for a hamster. You can keep them in a glass aquarium with a secure wire-screen cover, a wire-frame cage, or a combination wire–plastic cage. Gerbils are land dwellers, so they need a wide cage rather than a tall one.
There are a few bedding options. The best bedding is made from recycled paper or wood pulp—it contains no harmful inks, dyes, or heavy metals. It is also dust-free, which is important because dusty materials can irritate a gerbil’s respiratory system. Whatever type you choose, provide a deep layer—about 4 inches (10 cm)—so that your small pets can dig and burrow.

Your gerbil cage must also have a food dish, a water bottle, a nest box, and toys. All these items come in different shapes, colors, and sizes. Make sure that you clean the food dish and water bottle regularly. Toys can be store bought, like an exercise wheel, or can be found at home, like an empty cardboard paper towel roll.

Diet

Pet stores sell rodent mixes, which are great for your gerbils. You can also offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apples, bananas, berries, avocados, carrots, red peppers, and many others. Almost all gerbils enjoy chasing, catching, and eating live foods; you can feed them crickets, mealworms, and waxworms, which are often sold at pet stores for reptiles.

Most gerbils stop eating when they have consumed enough calories. Remove any uneaten fruits or vegetables so that they don’t rot. If you notice that your gerbils’ food bowl is constantly empty, give them more food. Conversely, if you always notice lots of uneaten food, you are giving them too much and must cut back.

Health and Illness

Gerbils don’t appear to be prone to as many potential ailments as are other small pets. However, if you notice signs of illness or injury, contact a veterinarian immediately. Discharge from the eyes, lethargy, and reduced appetite are all signs that something is wrong.

Experts estimate that between 20 and 40 percent of gerbils develop seizures when they are about two months old. This condition is inherited. The seizures are usually over in a few minutes and have no long-term effects. If your gerbil has a seizure while you have him out of his cage, return him to his home until he recovers. Many gerbils outgrow this condition, and it doesn’t seem to affect life expectancy.

If you stick to a cleaning regime—clean the cage, change the bedding, and keep the water and food fresh—your gerbils will live in an ideal healthy environment.

Grooming

Like hamsters, gerbils spend a lot of time washing themselves and biting their nails to keep them neat and trimmed. Pet gerbils like dust baths, and they can be quite entertaining to watch while they bathe. Use chinchilla dust or bird gravel for this purpose; washing your gerbils with soap and water can make them quite sick.
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