The Mongolian Gerbil is the most popular gerbil species that are kept as a pet. They are sand-colored in the wild, but breeding made other fur colors possible and they can be acquired in many different colors such as white, black, brown, and many shades of beige.
Gerbils are social animals that live together in families. They care for each other and make sure everyone is safe. Just like all social animals, they have ways to communicate with each other.
As a whole, gerbils communicate in several different ways. They communicate via smell, sound, sight, and body language. Gerbils do not only communicate with each other, they also communicate with their owners, when they are kept as pets.
In the following article, you will find many examples of gerbil communication that will help you to understand better how your gerbils are feeling, what they are “saying” to each other, and what they want to tell you.
How do Gerbils Talk to Each Other?
Gerbils use different sounds, body language, and smells to communicate with each other. Just like all social animals, they have their way of interacting with each other to form stable families and a social hierarchy.
As a whole, gerbils communicate with each other a lot. Most of the communication is non-verbal, meaning that they communicate via body language, scents, and gestures instead of sounds. They don’t speak with each other in words as we humans do.
Gerbils Recognize Family Members by Their Smell
The most important communication method that gerbils use is their smell. The smell of each gerbil reveals what family they belong to because gerbils mark each other and their environment (in the case of pet gerbils they mark their cage) to recognize each other.
If a gerbil from a different family comes close to the tunnels of other gerbils, they will not allow the gerbil to come closer and fight to protect their nest.
This is why you cannot simply introduce a new gerbil to an existing group of two or more gerbils, because they will most likely protect their territory and attack the new gerbil. In most cases, it will lead to serious injuries and in some cases, they will even kill the intruder.
Gerbils should always stay together. If a gerbil is away for too long, for example for medical treatment, the scent might have changed and the rest of the gerbils will not accept the individual back in the group.
This can also apply to a human hand that has been washed with a different soup. Gerbils might attack the hand, even though they know the person, just because the scent is different.
Gerbils make sure that the entire cage is marked. Therefore deep-cleaning the cage will stress them out. They need their scent marks to feel safe. If you need to clean the entire cage, try to only exchange parts of the bedding, and not all of it.
Gerbils Have a Strict Hierarchy
Gerbils live together in groups of at least two individuals. The highest-ranking gerbil is allowed to eat first, and even “steal” food out of the paws of the other gerbils.
Younger gerbils tend to question the hierarchy. When gerbils are trying to jump on another or mark them by urinating on them, they might be sorting out the hierarchy. In some cases, these actions can lead to serious fights.
Gerbils Communicate a Lot Via Body-Language
When gerbils interact with each other, they use movements and gestures to communicate. For example, gerbils that are lower in the hierarchy would lay down in front of higher ranking gerbils and let themselves groom to clarify the hierarchy.
When you spend a lot of time with your gerbils, you will learn to understand a lot of their behavior. Here are just some examples of how gerbils behave, but there are many more movements and signals that gerbils use to communicate with each other and with you.
In order to establish ranking in the social hierarchy gerbils sometimes stand on their hind legs and box each other with their front paws.
Quickly Moving the Tail
Sometimes you will see gerbils sit very still, but the tail is moving quickly and with sudden movements.
This is an indication of excitement. This gerbil pays a lot of attention at that moment. If the tail moves very quickly, it’s a sign of aggression. You should not try to touch a gerbil that is that tense.
Aggressive behaviors can occur when you try to put different gerbils together, and they have not accepted each other fully as family members yet.
Mounting Each Other
It is a common behavior of gerbils to mount each other. They don’t only mount each other in order to mate but also to establish the hierarchy within the group.
Females that are in heat will encourage other gerbils to mount them by lowering their back and thumping softly with their hind legs. Not only males but also females will follow that encouragement.
If an individual male gerbil tends to mount all the other gerbils a lot, it might raise the stress level within the group. It can lead to fights and in some cases, it makes sense to separate these males from the rest of the group.
There are different reasons for gerbils licking objects or the skin of somebody. One reason could be that they are thirsty. Check the water bottle regularly.
Sometimes tiny things can get stuck somewhere in the bottle which can make it hard or even impossible for the gerbils to drink.
If the water bottle is ok and you also see your gerbils drinking, licking can also be an indicator of a deficiency of minerals. You can introduce a salt stone from the pet store as a treat for your gerbils.
Do not leave the salt stone in the cage all the time. Your gerbils might use it to trim their teeth. You can put it in the cage for an hour a day under your supervision.
Licking can also be a symptom of deficiency related to gerbil food. If the food is not well-balanced, a gerbil might lack some vitamins.
Gerbils have sharp and strong teeth and can bite their owner.
Biting can have different reasons. Gerbils can bite in an aggressive way if they feel threatened. It might not want to be touched or feels like the hand is an intruder in the cage. A bite like that will probably break the skin.
In order to prevent such a bite, you can try to rub some of the used bedding against your hand to make your hand smell like the rest of the gerbil group.
Gerbils can also bite softly. Especially young gerbils tend to nibble on the owner’s finger to check if it is something to eat. That bite can also hurt, but will most likely not break the skin.
Some gerbils will stop biting or nibbling on the fingers when they get older, others won’t.
Rubbing the Belly
Gerbils mark their territory by rubbing their belly on objects in their enclosure. They depend highly on their sense of smell and need the entire enclosure and their family members to smell in a certain way in order to recognize them.
Gnawing on Objects
Just like most rodents gerbils need to trim down their teeth regularly because they keep growing. They will gnaw on any wooden object in the enclosure, but also on plastic, metal, and any other object you put in the cage.
If your gerbils seem to be tense and have their fur puffed up, they might be just about to get into a fight.
Do not put your hand into the enclosure without some kind of protection, such as gloves, in order to separate them. Otherwise, you might get injured.
Jumping in the Air
If you see your gerbils jumping into the air, it is usually a sign of excitement. They might jump into the air when you play with them, or when they get up in the morning.
Standing on the Hind Legs and Sniffing
A gerbil that stands on the back legs with the front paws hanging down on the side is relaxed and curious.
It is a good sign because that gerbil is content in the enclosure or environment and interested in what happens next.
Gerbils Have a Wide Repertoire of Sounds
Gerbils make different sounds such as squeaking, thumping, chirping, and purring. Each sound has a different meaning.
They use these sounds to communicate with each other and also with you. Every sound depends on the situation the gerbil is in.
A squeaking sound can mean that a gerbil is hurt during a fight, but it can also mean that a gerbil wants to play.
Therefore the sound has to be matched to the situation, before jumping to any conclusions.
In general, gerbils are not loud animals. Usually, you won’t hear anything but the rustling of the bedding in the cage.
The squeaking sound is a very high-pitched sound.
What does squeaking mean?
Gerbils squeak in many different situations. It can have various meanings. A very high-pitched, loud squeak can be an indication of pain or a fight. Depending on the frequency and the volume of the squeak, you should check on your gerbils to make sure that everything is alright.
In some cases, gerbils squeak when you pick them up. That can mean that they did not see you coming and that they were startled. It is better to pick gerbils up in a way that they know what is about to happen. Otherwise, you might get bitten.
The chirping sound is not very different from the squeaking sound. It is also a high-pitched sound but is usually softer and not as loud as squeaking.
What does chirping mean?
Young gerbils that call for their mother chirp in a certain way. When gerbils communicate with you or they want to play with you, you will also hear them chirping. You will also hear them chirping, when they groom each other, play with each other, or when they are excited about something they found.
The purring sound can be compared with the sound that a content cat makes. It is a rather low and rumbling noise.
What does purring mean?
Purring is a sound a happy and relaxed gerbil will make. They might purr during the grooming process, or if they are cuddled together with their family. When gerbils purr, they grind their teeth, which is why you will see some movements in the jaw of the gerbil.
Gerbils do not purr very often. If you see your gerbil purr, it means that you have a strong bond, because your gerbil is completely relaxed and content.
The clicking noise can be compared to a ticking clock.
What does clicking mean?
Unlike the other sounds that gerbils use to communicate or show indications of their mood, clicking has nothing to do with the gerbil’s feelings. A regular clicking sound is an indication of a health condition.
The gerbil could suffer from a respiratory infection or a cold. If you notice any other indications of a cold such as runny noses, coughing, or a lack of appetite, you should consult a vet.
Gerbils move their weight to the front paws and thump with their hind legs. They are not trying to make a loud sound, it’s more about the movements on the ground.
What does thumping mean?
Gerbils thump with their hind legs on the ground to warn each other if they sense a potential threat. The movements in the ground will alert the other gerbils and they can hide in the tunnels.
Pet gerbils often show these behaviors if they are in a new environment and are startled by sudden movements or noises.
Thumping can also be used to intimidate other gerbils and to establish social ranking.
Thumping can also happen during the mating time in order to attract other gerbils.
Gerbils also communicate with each other via sounds that are not audible to the human ear. The sounds are too high-pitched for us to hear them.
Lisa is one of the two founders of Animal-Knowledge. She has been very interested in animals and insects from a very young age and has owned different kinds of pets such as snails, ants, fish, turtles, mice, rats, hamsters, rabbits, a dog, … you get the idea 🙂