The Complete ‘A to Z’ Gerbil Pet Guide

Last Updated : November 23, 2021
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Let’s start by saying the most important thing:

Gerbils make for incredible small pets.

And there’s a ton of good reasons why… it’s not an accident that they became one of the world’s favorite pets almost overnight in the 1950s and 60s!

Need a few?

They’re adorable, entertaining, affectionate, and surprisingly easy to care for.

We could go on and on, but that isn’t the point of this blog post.

You’ve dropped by because you want to learn everything there is to know about pet gerbils…

And that’s precisely what’s going to happen today… and it’ll only take 15 minutes!

If you’re already somewhat experienced with gerbils, use our handy table of contents to skip straight to the sections that interest you most.

But if you’re a newbie, simply keep reading and scrolling — you’ll learn all the key information from the top!

Girl with her black pet gerbil
Mongolian gerbil and smiles

A Brief History of the Pet Gerbil

Many different species of gerbils live in the wild in a wide range of locations, from Africa all the way to Asia. There are 87 known species of Gerbil.

However, the vast majority of the fluffy gerbils we know and love as pets come from 2 species: The Mongolian Gerbil and the Fat Tailed Gerbil.

The Mongolian Gerbil (Meriones Unguiculatus).

Some people say that the famous Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan was amongst the first people to own a pet gerbil way back in the 1200s. But the legends don’t stop there:

They even tell of a story when Genghis’ gerbil saved his life…

Supposedly his tiny pet caught an assassin by surprise and nipped his foot, causing him to yelp. Genghis heard this sound, discovered the intruder, and took care of the rest.

Thank you, gerbil! 🐹 🥷

Despite this royal standing, it took many centuries for the rest of the world to discover Mongolian Gerbils…

Father Armand David, a French missionary in the region, was the first European to mention gerbils in 1866. He was also the first to send a few specimens back to Europe, where they were studied and named in 1867 by the scientist Alphonse Milne-Edwards.

Gerbils gained a bit of popularity as lab animals; however, they continued to be virtually unknown in the mainstream Western world until 1954. In that year, a certain Dr. Schwentker imported gerbils to the USA for use in scientific research.

American scientists soon discovered that these diminutive animals had the potential to be great pets for both adults and children.

This lead to gerbils showing up in pet stores all across the United States, where they proved to be an instant hit!

From there on out, they conquered the world as pets…

And the rest, as they say, is history!

The Fat Tailed Gerbil (Pachyuromys duprasi)

Fat-Tailed Gerbils are rarer than their Mongolian cousins. They are known to live a little longer and are less active. They are also not as sociable, so if you prefer to keep a single gerbil, then they would be a better choice, if you can find them in your local pet stores.

Other Gerbil species include the Northern Pygmy and Mongolian Jird.

Getting to Know Gerbils

Physical Characteristics

Gerbils are tiny, stocky critters that are flawlessly built for surviving in arid climates like deserts and steppes, you know, like their natural habitat in Mongolia.

Side view of a pet gerbil

They have excellent eyesight and hearing, short bodies (an adult is about 4″ inches long / 10 cm in size), long furry tails, and minute limbs — simply adorable!

They’re also perfectly colored for desert living as their brownish, sandish-colored coats blend in with the sand and dirt, making them hard to spot for predators.

But don’t worry if you’re not crazy about this wild ‘golden agouti’ color…

Thanks to selective breeding, pet gerbils come in various colors like white, lilac, black, blue, and patterned.

Another fun fact is that gerbils urinate very little— an evolutionary trick that saves them from losing too much water (and you from a smelly home)!

Baby Gerbils are born blind and without fur, but develop quickly, and will be fully grown by around 2 weeks.

Behavior and Temperament

Gerbils tend to be real sweetie pies.

They’re curious, social animals that love spending time with people and other gerbils. If we had to describe them using only a couple of words, we’d say ‘fantastic companions.’

Important note:

Unlike hamsters, gerbils are too social to be housed alone — they need between one and three same-sex, same litter mates to thrive in captivity!

This inability to be a solitary pet stems from the fact that they live in large families in the wild.

Anything else you should know about these loveable rodents?

Yes, here’s some more helpful information:

1. It’s perfectly normal for gerbils to sit up on their hind legs.

2. Males are better suited than females to living in large, same-sex groups.

3. Gerbils aren’t nocturnal, but they don’t have a fixed routine for sleeping either. They tend to nap randomly at various points of the day and night.

It’s pretty much ‘Nap. Eat. Play. Repeat.’ for these social butterflies!

4. Gerbils take dust baths rather than water.

Strange, right?

A bit… but it makes perfect sense if you remember that wild gerbils live in the desert where’s there basically no water!

5. They’re super friendly, and they rarely bite people unless they feel threatened.

6. You can easily tame a Mongolian Gerbil.

How?

Check the next section for more information:

Handling Your Gerbil

Before you can freely handle your gerbils, you need to tame them.

This might sound intimidating, but don’t panic; it’s really not.

You simply need to train your animals to not be afraid of you and trust you enough to let you handle them freely. You should use yummy treats (like sunflower seeds), patience, and positive reinforcement to get the job done.

Need a bit more help?

Then take a look at these seven steps:

  1. Leave your gerbils alone for a day after you’ve brought them home — this will help them get used to their new environment.
  2. Once you notice that they’re comfortable in their cage, you can approach and talk to them softly.
  3. Start by offering your gerbils a treat or two through an opening in their enclosure — do this until they regularly accept treats from you.
  4. Now open the main door and offer them some food by putting your hand inside their cage.
  5. Next, put some treats in your palm and patiently wait for your gerbils to eat from your hand.
  6. Once your gerbil/gerbils are happy to sit in your palm and to climb around on your forearm, you can pick them up and hold them in your cupped hands.
  7. If they seem relaxed, then go ahead and carry them around or caress them softly on their sides and heads.

That’s it — you’re ready to play and have fun with your tamed gerbils!

But before you move on to the ‘Housing’ section, memorize these handling considerations:

  • Don’t touch your gerbil’s tail, and don’t pick them up by the tail.
  • Young children should always be supervised by their parents.
  • Handle your pet gerbils far away from other house pets.

Housing Your Gerbils

black gerbil in a cage

Getting a proper cage for your pets is easily the most important part of being a gerbil owner.

How do you live up to your responsibilities?

First of all, you should pick as large a cage as possible.

Your active gerbils will spend most of their lives there, so you should definitely maximize the space they have available! The minimum size for two gerbils is 24″ x 12″ x 12″ (60 x 30 x 30 cm).

Next, you need to decide on a material — wood, plastic, wire, glass, or mixed materials?

You should generally avoid wood and thin plastic cages because gerbils can chew right through them with their sharp teeth.

Wire cages (like a typical hamster cage) can be used for gerbils too, but they’re not the best option as they have some significant drawbacks:

  • As burrowing rodents, Gerbils can knock bedding out of their enclosure as they burrow.
  • Your gerbil might chew on the metal bars and injure themselves.
  • Wire cages don’t protect your pet from drafts.

Glass enclosures (like fish tanks) are a notable improvement because they protect your small animal from all three of these risks and, what’s more, give you enough space to add a deep layer of bedding,

But there’s an even better alternative:

A gerbilarium, a.k.a. a glass (or thick plastic) aquarium with a top part made from thinly spaced wired bars. This combines the best of all worlds into a single outstanding home with adequate ventilation!

Two excellent products are Little Friends Mayfair Gerbilarium Cage  and Savic Habitat Cages for Gerbils and Hamsters  — check them out!

Any other housing tips?

Yes.

Never forget the following three things:

One

Pick a location for your cage that’s ideal for your gerbil’s needs.

It should be:

  • Quiet and calm— remember gerbils like living in burrows and have ultra-sensitive hearing!
  • Stable in temperature
  • Far from household chemicals
  • Distant from other house pets

Two

Gerbils love bedding.

Trust us; we asked… and they told us that there’s no such thing as a thick enough layer of bedding!

But in our experience, they seem happiest when they have at least 5-6″ (13-15 cm) of bedding (aspen shavings  or paper ) to burrow in at the bottom of their cage.

P.S. Don’t forget to throw in a bit of nesting material for your gerbil — either something like this product  or some grass hay — it’ll make their cage even cozier!

Three

Your gerbil’s cage needs to be cleaned at least one time a week to keep it hygienic.

Gerbil Toys and Accessories

Even the nicest home can get boring if it’s empty…

And that’s why you need to think about entertainment once you’ve sorted out your gerbils’ accommodation! 🐹 🤗

But what are the right things to get?

Here’s a list of all the supplies you’ll need, PLUS some concrete recommendations of products that should definitely make their way into your shopping cart:

  1. An exercise wheel with a solid surface — the Niteangel Silent Spinner 
  2. A wooden nest box for hiding, resting, and napping —the Niteangel Birch Chamber Hideout 
  3. Cardboard tubes and tunnels — Kaytee Chewbular Play Tubes 
  4. Chew toys for filing down their teeth — Niteangel Fun Pet Balls 
  5. Even more toys — Toys 
  6. Fun ramps — the Niteangel Suspension Bridge 
  7. A water bottle with a metal spout— the Choco Nose H125 No Drip Water Bottle 
  8. A ceramic food bowl — the Kaytee Stoneware Bowl 
  9. Bathing sand— Hamiledyi Bathing Sand 
  10. An adorable bathtub — the KnocKconK Small Animal Bathtub 

Feeding Your Gerbils

Gerbils will eat just about anything they can get access to…

Including things like hazardous chocolate chip cookies! 🍪 🚫

This means you need to be very careful when you’re feeding them…

And also when you’re playing in an area where you usually eat — they might find some scraps of ‘people food’ and devour them before you can stop them!

Your main goal as an owner is to only feed them healthy foods.

But what counts as healthy for a pet gerbil?

Their diet should primarily (about 75%) consist of specially formulated dry gerbil food. You can either pick seed mixes or pelleted food, with the latter being better for picky eaters.

We suggest going for a box of Oxbow Essentials Gerbil Food  but feel free to drop by one of your local pet shops and buy another brand. Just make sure to check the nutritional information and pick a food that’s made from quality ingredients and doesn’t contain more than 7% fat.

Regardless of which dry food you chose, you should feed your pet rodents twice a dayonce in the morning and once in the evening.

You should then supplement this diet by adding in a small amount of fresh food. This adds variety and other essential nutrients to their daily menu. But don’t overdo it, as you might upset your gerbil’s delicate digestive system.

What fresh goodies can you give your gerbil?

Gerbils enjoy a wide variety of fruits and veggies (like apples, bananas, cauliflower, dandelions, peas, and parsnips) as well as treats (like peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and sunflower/pumpkin seeds).

But when it comes to treats, keep your eyes on the calendar as you should only give them small amounts on a weekly basis!

One more thing:

Don’t forget to give your gerbils constant access to clean, non-chlorinated fresh water via a no-drip water bottle!

Common Gerbil Health Issues

Luckily for gerbil owners and enthusiasts, these little animals are hardy and usually live healthy lives. But we can’t really say ‘long and healthy lives’ because gerbils tend to have short lifespans just 2 to 5 years.

You need to cherish every moment you have together!

And since it’s better to be safe than sorry, you should also be aware of the following common health issues that might affect your pets:

  • Tail problems — gerbil tails are easily damaged and can even fall off!
  • Injuries like broken bones or cuts
  • Respiratory or parasitic infections, i.e., fleas, ticks, mites, allergies to bedding
  • Tumors, particularly in their scent glands (males are more at risk)
  • Heatstrokegerbils struggle in the heat, so keep them cool and well-ventilated!
  • Overgrown nails and teeth
  • Digestive issues, especially diarrhea

Keep an eye out for these issues (or any other strange behavior) and take your gerbil to the vet if you’re ever worried about their health.

And by the way:

If you want a healthy gerbil, It’s best practice to schedule routine trips to the veterinarian regardless of your gerbils’ well-being — prevention is always the best medicine!

Conclusion: Gerbils Are Great Pets!

Gerbils are the complete package.

From thwarting assassins to snuggling up with their owners on the couch, these tiny pets do it all.

Trust us:

You’ll really struggle to find any other small animal that’s both as easy to care for and as much fun to handle…

So, if you haven’t already added a pair of gerbils to your family, go ahead and do it right now! Want help choosing a name for your pets? Check out our round-up of the Best Gerbil Names.

Everybody, from small children all the way to grandparents, will love spending time with these friendly, loving fluffballs. 🐹 ❤️

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