How to Care for Pet Gerbils: Cages, Food, Chew Toys, and More
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?
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I recommend this type of paper bedding. It's what I use for our gerbils!
How Do I Clean the Gerbils' Cage?
- 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.
- Take the base off the cage and remove all the toys, houses, food dishes, water bottles—everything!
- 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.
- Wash all the food dishes, water bottles, toys, and houses. Make sure you clean everything completely.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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!
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 GerbilsClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.