Gerbils are cute, fun, and entertaining pets for both adults and older children. When handled gently, gerbils rarely bite and, with time and patience, they can bond with their owners and make loving pets. Gerbils love to dig and burrow and are intermittently active during the day and night. They have excellent hearing, which in nature allows them time to escape approaching predators.
Gerbils are very territorial in nature and both males and females produce a yellow-brown musky secretion for scent marking from a gland located on their underside. They also mark territory with urine and feces. Gerbils that are caged together before puberty will bond and, if not overcrowded, will live in harmony. If introduced as adults, both male and female gerbils will fight. In fact, female gerbils may be more aggressive fighters than males.
Unlike most rodents, the male gerbil helps the female raise the young. Most gerbils are good parents. However, the female may cannibalize or desert her litter if she is disturbed, overcrowded, ill, or malnourished or if the number of young in the litter is very small. This may have been a survival tactic developed by gerbils in the wild.
When designing the cage environment for your gerbil, keep in mind that gerbils are active burrowers that like to explore. Because they also like to chew, gerbils must be housed in escape-proof cages. Wood should not be used as a caging material because gerbils can gnaw through it. Many owners keep their gerbils in wire cages with plastic bottoms or in plastic cages. Adequate ventilation is very important for gerbils because ammonia from urine can cause respiratory problems. Cages should be cleaned at least twice a week.
Without plenty of environmental stimulation, gerbils may dig furiously at the corners of their cages. A gerbil's cage should be large enough to accommodate an exercise wheel, a hide box, and a tunnel for play. A cage with tunnels connecting various sections is ideal. Wheels should have solid surfaces, because injuries can occur if a gerbil's tail or delicate legs get caught in wire wheels.
Bedding can be shredded paper (avoid shiny ads that may contain toxic substances), hardwood shavings, or composite recycled newspaper pellets. Cedar and pine shavings are not recommended because they contain resins that can be irritating to a gerbil's skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Aspen shavings are a preferred bedding material for gerbils. In addition, tissue paper, paper towels, facial tissue, and old mittens or socks can make excellent nesting materials. Avoid artificial fiber bedding that can wrap around a gerbil's legs or cause problems if ingested. Hay can also provide a substrate in which to play and nest, and it can be ingested without problems. The best types of hay to use are grass hays such as timothy, meadow, orchard, and oat.
Water is the number one nutritional requirement for all animals, and your gerbil should always have fresh, clean water available. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better than a water bowl, which can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. Hanging the water bottle on the outside of the cage so just the tip of the spout is inside discourages chewing of the sipper tube. Water needs to be changed daily, and the sipper tube should be cleaned weekly.
Seeds have a high fat content and poor nutritional balance and so are not recommended. We recommend a balanced pelted diet such as Oxbow's Healthy Handfuls Hamster and Gerbil Food and Mazuri's Hamster/Gerbil diet. Conversion from a seed mixture to an all-pellet diet is usually simple, because gerbils like the taste of the pellets. A gradual conversion is preferred and may take one to two weeks. Pellets can be fed in a sturdy crock bowl. Dishes should be cleaned daily, and any leftover food should be discarded.
Many owners want to offer treats to their pet gerbils. A treat should be enjoyable to eat and should provide interaction between you and your gerbil. Fresh fruits and vegetables fed in limited quantities can be offered as treats. In order to prevent digestive upset, feed the same treats consistently, and avoid gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.