How to Care for Pet Gerbils: Cages, Food, Chew Toys, and More

Updated on June 27, 2019
Kit-Kitty profile image

I'm the proud owner of two gerbils. They make great pets! I love sharing what I've learned about caring for these adorable critters.

Everything you need to know about these cute, lively, friendly pets!
Everything you need to know about these cute, lively, friendly pets! | Source

What Are Gerbils?

Gerbils are part of the rodent family, along with mice, rats, hamsters, and other small, furry critters. (The word "rodent" is derived from the Latin word rodere, which means "to gnaw.") They come from the desert and semi-desert areas of Africa and Mongolia.

Why Do Gerbils Make Great Pets?

  1. They're clean. Because they're a desert animal, they require less water than most other rodents. For a pet owner, this means less cage cleaning due to less urine. In our house, "less cage cleaning" is a great phrase; in fact, I'm sure it's a great phrase in any household!
  2. They're friendly and gentle. In terms of temperament, they are friendly, curious animals, and they hardly ever bite. They're interested in what's happening around them, and they'll even adapt to your schedule.
  3. They're cute! Gerbils are just so adorable! You will smile the minute you see your pet slowly waking up and scurrying over to greet you. And try not to smile when you see a bunch of them sleeping in a pile! If that's not enough, wait until you see them stand up on their back legs and sniff the air. Don't forget their cute, fur-tufted tails. They're such lovable creatures!

Fun Gerbil Facts

1. They grow to be 6–12 inches long (including the tail).

2. They live 4–5 years if properly cared for.

3. They like (generally) quiet environments.

4. They are playful and enjoy attention from their owners.

A pile of sleeping gerbils is pretty darn cute.
A pile of sleeping gerbils is pretty darn cute. | Source

Gerbil Care: Cages, Bedding, and Cleaning

Another thing that makes gerbils such great pets is how little space they take up. Fully grown animals (about 6 months old) are approximately 6–12 inches long, including their tails, and they don't need a huge cage. They do like plenty of room to play, though!

What Size Cage Should I Choose?

The bigger the cage, the happier your gerbils will be. A good rule is to allow about 5 gallons of space per gerbil—so, for two animals, you'd need at least a 10-gallon cage. You might want to talk to the rodent department specialist at the pet store for their minimum cage size requirement.

We have our pets in a 3-story cage. When choosing a cage, remember to make sure that the bars are close enough together so your little critters can't escape.

What Kind of Bedding Should I Use?

Paper-based bedding is a great choice! It's comfortable and safe for your pets. You can find many kinds of store-bought paper bedding, and some are designed to facilitate tunneling, which gerbils love to do! Alternately, you can make your own bedding from shredded brown paper. However, make sure that the paper you use is free from harmful inks, dyes, and glues.

If you want to use wood shavings, look for aspen wood bedding in the pet store. Be very careful about what kind of wood is used! Never buy pine or cedar wood bedding, since both of those woods are toxic to gerbils.

Even though these are desert animals, sand bedding is not a good choice. The small grains of sand will get in your pets' eyes and cause them discomfort or even blindness.

PETCO Small Animal Paper Bedding with Baking Soda, 60 liters, Color:Blue
PETCO Small Animal Paper Bedding with Baking Soda, 60 liters, Color:Blue

I recommend this type of paper bedding. It's what I use for our gerbils!

 

How Do I Clean the Gerbils' Cage?

  1. First off, you will need a container to put your pets in before you start cleaning. For example, you could use a bin with tall sides that won't tip over. Remember not to put them in an airtight container! Once you've safely relocated your pets, you may continue.
  2. Take the base off the cage and remove all the toys, houses, food dishes, water bottles—everything!
  3. Dump out the bottom of the cage. Remove all the bedding from the floor and other shelves. If the bottom (or any other part of the cage) looks dirty and/or smells bad, make sure you wash it with warm, clean water. Do not use cleaning products! These will shorten the lifespan of your pets. Some products can even kill them within days of use.
  4. Wash all the food dishes, water bottles, toys, and houses. Make sure you clean everything completely.
  5. After everything is washed, cleaned, and dried, put the cage back together. Return all of the toys and equipment to the cage and add fresh bedding.
  6. Now you can put your gerbils back in their newly cleaned cage!

Make Their Cage Fun!

Try rearranging the cage after you clean it: Move the food to another place, change where the water bottle hangs, or just move around the toys. This will keep your gerbils excited and active, and they will feel the need to keep exploring.

Food and Feeding

Gerbils enjoy all kinds of nuts, seeds, berries, and other fruits and vegetables. A mixture of different nuts and seeds and a bit of fresh produce will keep your pets healthy, and their fur will be soft and shiny.

What Do Gerbils Eat?

  • Nuts like peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, and other such nuts are a major food source. When buying nuts for your pets, make sure the nuts are unsalted and preferably raw or uncooked. The roasted, flavored, and salted nuts that people usually eat can be very unhealthy for gerbils and cause problems like nutritional deficiencies, disease, and obesity.
  • Seeds such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and other such seeds are awesome sources of protein and energy for your pets! Just like with nuts, the seeds should be unsalted, unflavored, and preferably raw or uncooked. Any flavored, salted, and roasted seeds in large quantities can be hazardous to your pets' health.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are very good as well. Your pets will love fresh produce! Kiwis, pears, celery, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, parsnips, corn, lettuce, plums, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, mulberries, bananas, and apple chunks are all healthy options.

No Apple Seeds! No Grapes!

Apple seeds and grapes are poisonous to gerbils. They enjoy the flesh of the apple; they just can't have the seeds. Never give an apple core to your pets, and never give them any grapes.

  • Store-bought gerbil foods are also good. I recommend food mixtures with mostly seeds and nuts plus little alfalfa bites and grains. A medium mixture of the above items works well, along with dried fruits and vegetables such as dried carrots, apples, and corn.

Gerbils like eating nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
Gerbils like eating nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. | Source

How Do I Prepare the Food?

The various food options covered above will need preparation:

  • Nuts, seeds, and store-bought food mixtures need to be put in the freezer for at least 5 hours before they are fed to your pets. Placing these foods in the freezer overnight would be best. This is because they can sometimes have little bugs or eggs in the mixture; this is especially true for store-bought brands. Putting the food in the freezer will kill any potential bugs or eggs. These bugs can lead to discomfort, disease, and—in extreme cases—even death for your gerbils, so please be cautious and freeze your food.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables need to be washed before they are fed to your pets. This will remove any harmful substances or pesticides from the surface of the produce. Wash the produce in warm, clean water, and scrub to remove any dirt.

Don't Let Fresh Food Spoil!

Remove any leftover fresh food from the cage after 2–4 hours to make sure your pets aren't eating spoiled produce.

Tooth Maintenance

Gerbils' teeth are constantly growing, just like human nails and hair! Therefore, your pets need to wear down their teeth regularly by chewing and gnawing on things. Don't worry—this isn't hard to manage!

What Should I Give My Gerbils to Chew?

An easy way to keep your pets' teeth short is to provide them with plenty of things to chew on. You'll need to be selective while you're at the store and make sure that any items you give your pets do not contain harmful dyes or glue. Here are a few of the options you might evaluate:

  • chew balls
  • chew sticks
  • chew toys designed for gerbils

Note: Gerbils do not eat chew toys; they simply gnaw on them. Chew toys are not a substitute for food.

Your gerbils' teeth will continue growing, so they need things to chew on to wear their teeth down.
Your gerbils' teeth will continue growing, so they need things to chew on to wear their teeth down. | Source

Can I Give Them Sticks From the Backyard?

Sometimes gerbils will enjoy sticks like the ones you find in your yard. They also like to climb, so giving them some long sticks for both chewing and climbing would be great!

After collecting sticks from the backyard, make sure they do not have thorns and are not from poisonous plant species; chances are, if it's poisonous for you, it's poisonous for your pets. Also, make sure that you wash the sticks in warm, clean water—nothing else. Don't use cleaning products or boil the sticks; just wash them off in warm water.

Habitat Enrichment and Well-Being

Being friendly animals, these little critters like to play and be handled! They are very social and should be kept in one of the main rooms of your house so they can see what you're doing. (Make sure the room is not too loud, though.) Our gerbils love to be in the living room where they watch us eat, play, type on the computers, or just walk by. This keeps them entertained and active, which keeps them happy and therefore healthy!

What Kinds of Toys Should I Give My Gerbils?

Store-bought toys are fun, but they can get expensive. Many of the chewing supplies also make good toys, as do household items! For example, you can give them branches from outside or even just bits of paper.

They love paper, and they'll tear it apart and carry it away in their mouths, making nests and hide-outs! Bleached paper (white paper) is okay, but brown, unbleached paper is best. As always, be sure that the paper doesn't have any inks, dyes, or glue! And definitely do not give them newspaper; the inks used for newsprint are not healthy for your pets.

Do Gerbils Take Baths?

Yes, but only when they feel relaxed and safe. If your pets never take a bath, then it's likely that their cage or bathing area is either too loud or too open (in an area that gets too many people). If you have recently relocated your pets and they're still not bathing, they might just need time to adjust to their new location. The same goes for new gerbils you've just brought home!

This is what a curious gerbil looks like.
This is what a curious gerbil looks like. | Source

How Do I Know If My Gerbils Are Happy or Not?

Ever wonder if your pets are scared or happy or whether they feel safe? We humans can identify their feelings by paying attention to their body language:

  • When they feel scared, they will stand on their back legs with their front paws crossed or gripping each other.
  • When they feel curious, they will stand on their back legs and hold their paws in front of them loosely. They will often sniff the air or look around.
  • When they feel safe and content, they might take a bath, as mentioned above!

Meet Our Gerbils

Click thumbnail to view full-size
One of our gerbils.Our other gerbil.Exploring.Gerbils make a great pet for kids!Gerbils are playful and curious.More exploring in the cage.Snack time!
One of our gerbils.
One of our gerbils.
Our other gerbil.
Our other gerbil.
Exploring.
Exploring.
Gerbils make a great pet for kids!
Gerbils make a great pet for kids!
Gerbils are playful and curious.
Gerbils are playful and curious.
More exploring in the cage.
More exploring in the cage.
Snack time!
Snack time!

My family took a little trip to PetSmart one day, and we fell in love with a pair of adorable gerbils. When we brought them home, we were surprised to see how active and friendly they were. They truly have been a great addition to our household, which now consists of myself, my mom, my two noisy younger brothers (6 and 8 years old), and our two lovable gerbils!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    Reader Feedback

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      • profile image

        Ash 

        16 months ago

        My gerbil died when we got back from vacation is it because the cage was dirty with poop and pee is that what made him sick

      • profile image

        Alena 

        2 years ago

        I'm happy I found this website because I might get one for Christmas and without this I would of been blank minded.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        6 years ago

        Gerbils are very social animals if you have a lone gerbil it can get lonely and sometimes get sick. I am a gerbil breeder of 20 years now and i really like this site i just thought you might like to know that.

        (please let it be known i am not trying to rudely judge this site.)

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        6 years ago

        @anonymous: Hahah, actually we occasionally give them sand and / or dust baths. Gerbils that live single have trouble reaching parts of their back and need a rub-down every month or so. Dust and sand most enjoy, just make sure not to get it in their eyes. But water? Good luck! ;)

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        @Kit-Kitty: Sand baths also work really well, once a week or so is great. It's healthy for a gerbil's fur.

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        7 years ago

        @anonymous: Hey Nora, your gerbils will bathe themselves. Not a good idea to try to do it for them. If you have to clean them, because they got into something that would hurt them, carefully wrap the gerbil in a towel and hod it still while using a warm, damp cloth to bathe the gerbil, don't press too hard with either hand, they are so delicate!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        I was wondering.......how do u give them a bath? Do they bathe themselves?

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        7 years ago

        @anonymous: Hey Sonya! I don't think they are mad at you. Gerbils will often move their bed around the cage every time you clean it. Some of them will build it in thee same spot though. Neither is something to worry about. I think they keep moving it because they don't want it there anymore, that's okay.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        I have a question kind of? I cleand my gerbils cage and I feel like they are mad at me. They didn't build there nest where it was before and when ever i put shavings in that spot they move them away from that area? Is there anything to worry about? or are they just being goofs

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        i read your information and found it excellent. you answered a lot of questions we had. we have 9 gerbils. all well over the 2 year age. thanks for the info

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        7 years ago

        @anonymous: As long as the cage is cleaned out well at least once a month, and the gerbil is not getting stuck, the cage should be fine. If it is plastic, make sure the gerbil has chew toys, or it may chew through the cage, that's my only warning.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        My gerbil keeps bumping into things and getting nose bleeds. Is she blind? Please help. Thanks.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        My girlfriend just bought a gerbil from a pet store, but the guy in the store gave her a small hamster cage, will this be ok for the gerbil or should we take the cage back?

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        7 years ago

        @anonymous: Rebecca, I don't think I can answer that. If her eyes seem to be covered, or cloudy she might be. I suggest you take her to the vet.

      • TransplantedSoul profile image

        TransplantedSoul 

        7 years ago

        Gerbils are cool little animals. They have such personality. I had one growing up, and for our kids we have had 4 rats (2 at a time). Now have 2 cats, 2 dogs and a rabbit. They all get along well. Thanks for the write-up.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        8 years ago

        @anonymous: Yes, they do. My two little girl gerbils will wake up and come to the front of their cage at the sound of my voice - they don't do that for anyone else. If you're kind to your gerbil, it will know you, and love you. If it begins to gently groom your face/fingers that is truly a sign of affection, because it is treating you as it would a family member.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        8 years ago

        i love girbils i have 2 of them and i love them 2 bits and this info will help me a lot thank you

      • profile image

        philipbonde 

        8 years ago

        One of the most cute thing i see in the pets is their littleness and cuteness..Gerbils are one of them ..Gerbil care is informative post for the pet lovers .. i surely wan to follow these instructions..gerbil-cages

      • cinstress profile image

        cinstress 

        8 years ago

        great lens, we have gerbils too

        they are fun to watch

        good food ideas, thanks for the tips

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        8 years ago

        @anonymous: I can't tell you for sure but I think that they do... if you treat a gerbil right it will like you more then if you don't.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        8 years ago

        i have a gerbil name cody i need to ask a question?do gerbils have feelings for people?

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        8 years ago

        @Hynes: ur gerbil is most likely depressed they have feelings same as us and ur gerbil is morning the loss of his/her sister it is a concern what she is doing to her feet im not sure what to make of this i recommend you call your local vet im sure they have some solutions for this but call asap this is serious and could become infected

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        8 years ago

        I just noticed that my Gerbil has been limping when he is trying to get around. He doesn't want to put any weight on one of his front paws. He still uses the paw to eat, play, chew, and dig though. I contacted my vet but they are closed today. They are also the only vet in town who know anything about gerbils. Should I be worried about it or do you think he will be okay because he can still do things with it and he just chooses to not use it as much for walking/hopping. We (my husband and I) are not sure if this has happened recently or if he has had it all his little life as we can't feel a break on the leg at all. He has suffered a recent slip and fall from about 3 feet, but he was running around fine as if nothing was wrong after.

      • mythphile profile image

        Ellen Brundige 

        9 years ago from California

        I had a couple gerbils when I was a kid: Bell and Dee, short for Dum (named by my mother -- oh gosh, I JUST NOW REALIZED THE PUN!)

        Unfortunately Dum always managed to pop the lid off the tank and get into the baseboard heater.

        We gave them to my first grade. I'm afraid I really wasn't very good at caring for them. Grandma thought they'd be a nice gift, but really, one needs to think carefully about giving small animals to children as pets.

      • profile image

        Hynes 

        9 years ago

        our gerbil seams seams depresed since her sister died. he has chewed on her toes till they bleed then she seams to wait till they heal some them she she chews on them againg. Should we be conered? This behaviour makes me nurvious. Cynthia

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        9 years ago

        Hi Gail, Your gerbil sounds like it may have a little bug that may or may not be visible to you called mites. If it's fur is rough or dirty that's most likely it. I suggest you give it a bath in nice warm water then dry them right away. Here's how:

        Take a clean dish and fill it with about 1-2 inches of warm clean water, take a little bit of approved pet shampoo for rodent and rub it all over the gerbils fur, don't get it in their eyes or mouth or nose, now rise the gerbil and continues scubing in the dish of water, just don't let their eyes, nose or mouth go under the water and be careful of their ears! Now dry them off and completely clean their cage. Repeat several times over the week.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        9 years ago

        My gerbil is eating his toes on one foot and bleeding quite bad. He seams ok other than that. I have 2 gerbils together, both 2 and a half years old. Why is he doing this?

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        9 years ago

        Very good points, Bri.. I should update this with some more current information like you have mentioned!

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        9 years ago

        haleyy, your gerbil may be eating while you are not watching it. Gerbils are nocturnal animals, which means they may eat a lot more at night then they do the day. however if the food you give your gerbil is not going down at all you will want to check for two things:

        1. make sure that there is food left, this sounds strange but sometimes gerbils put back the husks without the seeds and empty pieces of thing like corn, so it looks like their bowl is still full but it's not, just dump out the waste and refill.

        2. If you gerbil is still not eating but is active then the don't sound sick but you may want to try a different brand of food, they may not like the food you are giving them. Also try putting in a washed piece of lettuce or celery.. they should enjoy that! And if they are not eating that will keep them healthy until you find food they like.

        If your gerbil is not active& not eating check for sign of illness, like red or watery eyes, dirty fur. you should take them to the vet.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        9 years ago

        GERBILS IN PAIRS

        You should always get gerbils in pairs if you can, so long as they are from the same litter and are of the same gender (so you don't end up with hundreds of little ones). They are extremely social and enjoy a companion more often than not. They will be more outgoing, active, and may even live longer if they have a friend of their own species. If you go to the pet store and there are multiple gerbils together in a cage, odds are that they get along well enough that they didn't have to be separated (ask an associate just in case). Plus, they are soooo cute when they use each other for pillows.

        ALSO: WHEELS

        If you get a wheel for them to run on, make sure it's not one with straight bars as their tail can get caught and broken. The criss-cross ones that look like chicken wire are the best!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        9 years ago

        my gerbil , templeton, never really eats his food. he just burys it. is that nomal ?

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        10 years ago

        [in reply to me] The answer to: Can Gerbils Eat Notebook paper? is Yes, If you want to read more, or learn more about giving gerbils paper please read the blog post!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        10 years ago

        can they hav notw book paper [in reply to Kit-Kitty]

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        10 years ago

        can u give them note paper

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        10 years ago

        Thank you for all your nice comments!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        10 years ago

        This site really helped me out a lot! Thank-you for making it!

      • profile image

        tdove 

        10 years ago

        Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!

      • Kit-Kitty profile imageAUTHOR

        Kit-Kitty 

        10 years ago

        [in reply to KimGiancaterino] Thank you!

      • KimGiancaterino profile image

        KimGiancaterino 

        10 years ago

        Gerbils are so cute... I love to watch them play and nap at the pet store. Nice lens!

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