Gerbils are cute little furballs that make great pets. These rodents are closely related to hamsters and voles and look like puffy mice with long tails that come with fur on the tip.
They are usually between 4 and 5 inches long and the males are a bit bigger than the females. They have cute, big, round eyes and were originally brown, but due to breeding, they come in many colors such as cream, white, black, and grey.
As a whole, gerbils are rather easy to take care of. They need a spacious cage with plenty of space to dig into some kind of bedding, in order to build tunnels. They also need companionship, food, water, a sandbath, a wheel, and an overall stimulating environment with lots to nibble on.
The Mongolian gerbil is the most commonly held pet. In nature, it lives in the Mongolian steppes where they build tunnels inside of smaller hills. They are used to a hot and dry climate during the summer and a dry and very cold climate in winter. Gerbils can adapt easily to the cold, but they can’t stand humidity.
Most gerbils have a life expectancy of around 3 to 4 years.
In this article, you will find all the information you need to take care of your pet gerbil. You will find everything you need to know about feeding, drinking, social interactions, housing, regular chores, and many more facts that will help you make the best out of your experience with your pet gerbil.
How to Look After Gerbils
The most common pet gerbil is the Mongolian gerbil. There are some other types of gerbils, that can be kept as pets, such as the Fat-tailed gerbil (also from Mongolia), Pallid Gerbils from Egypt, and Shaw’s Jird from North Africa.
In the following, you will find information on how to care for the Mongolian Gerbil. Other gerbil types might need slightly different conditions.
The daily duties include feeding, providing them with fresh water, and cleaning the sand bath aka toilet. Gerbils also need fresh hay regularly, as well as some branches or twigs to nibble on. The wheel and the sand from the sand bath should be cleaned every now and then.
Deep cleaning the entire cage is not one of your regular duties. Gerbils rely on their scent trails and it will cause stress if the entire bedding in the cage is exchanged. If it is necessary to clean the entire cage, you can spare some of the bedding that is used but still clean, and keep it in the cage, while exchanging and cleaning the rest. But as long as you offer your gerbils a sandbath, they will use it as a toilet and the rest of the cage is usually not too dirty.
Cleaning the cage should not take place more often than once every 2 to 3 months.
The regular chores include feeding, providing water, and cleaning the sand bath.
Gerbils have to be fed daily. The food can be spread across the cage where the gerbils will search it. You should use the gerbil food from the pet store. Every animal has different nutritious requirements, and even it gerbils will also eat mice or rat food, the gerbil food contains all the nutrients they need for a healthy diet
In addition to the dried food from the pet store, you should offer fresh food on a daily basis. Vegetables and fruits are healthy but have high moisture. Too many veggies and fruits can cause diarrhea. You can also alternatively go for dried vegetables and fruits to avoid this risk.
Make sure that you offer more vegetables than fruits. Fruits contain a lot of natural sugar, which can cause health issues such as obesity if gerbils eat too much of it.
Gerbils are mostly herbivores but tend to eat some insects every once in a while. They need proteins. Therefore you can offer your gerbils one mealworm a day as a treat. More mealworms are not recommended as they can easily cause overweight due to the high calories of a mealworm.
The water should be exchanged every day. You can give them a bottle with water, a bowl, or both. Gerbils will not take a bath in a bowl, they only use it for drinking. The only baths they take are sand baths.
Cleaning the Sand Bath
Gerbils use their sand baths for both cleanings and as a toilet. The poop should be taken out every day using a sieve. If the sand bath gets too dirty, gerbils will have trouble cleaning themselves properly. Make sure that the sand is always clean enough so that the gerbils are comfortable using the sand to clean off the oil from the fur. After a sand bath, the fur will be shiny and clean.
The weekly chores include fresh hay and straw, cleaning the wheel, putting some branches in the cage, as well as cleaning the entire sand bath properly.
Gerbils should be offered a handful of fresh hay or straw every week. They use it to nibble on and as nesting material.
The wheel only needs to be cleaned if it is dirty. You can use hot water and a disinfectant if necessary.
Branches With Leaves
Gerbils need wood to nibble on. Their teeth keep growing until they die, therefore they have to trim them on wood and similar materials. You can offer them twigs and branches of apple trees, willow trees, or hazel. Make sure that no pesticides were used on the trees.
Clean All Sand From the Sand Bath
Once a week it is time to clean out the entire sand bath. Exchange the sand and wash the container of the sand bath.
What Do Gerbils Need?
Gerbils do not need a lot of equipment. Here are the things you need for a pet gerbil:
- Cage with deep bottom part for digging
- Hay / Straw
- Wood and Cardboard
- Water bottle or water bowl
- Gerbil food
- Regularly fresh food
- Carrier for transportation
Gerbils are highly social animals and need to be kept in pairs. No extra light, heater, or ventilation is needed in the cage, as long as the enclosure is kept in a room with natural light, but not directly in sunlight.
What Kind of Cage do Gerbils Need?
Gerbils need a lot of space to dig around. Their most important activity is digging. This is why the enclosure should have a deep bottom part with lots of bedding for the gerbils to dig in and build their tunnels.
As a whole, gerbils need a chew-proof enclosure with a deep bottom part made out of glass or plastic. Good options are aquariums or terrariums with a mesh or wired lid. A second wired level is optional and can be used for the wheel, water, and sand bath.
If you want the areas for digging and for the water, sand bath, and wheel to be separated, you can use a tank divider or topper. The bottom part can be filled up with the material you want them to dig in, and the top part can be equipped with the wheel, the water bottle or water bowl, and the sand bath. This also eliminates the risk of any equipment dropping into tunnels because the gerbils built their tunnels right underneath.
The top part can be wired, while the bottom part should be made of glass. Otherwise, you will have bedding spilled all over your floor. Here is an example for a two-story enclosure with a closed bottom part and a wired top part:
Some cages have little ramps, toys, a wheel, and other equipment included. Therefore you should acquire the cage first, and then buy the equipment that is still missing for your new pets.
The cage has to be chew-proof, have a secure door latch, and have a deep bottom part. A clear bottom part comes with the advantage of you being able to see your pets while they built their tunnels.
How Big Should a Gerbil Tank Be?
The thumb rule states that 10 gallons (38 Liter) per gerbil is adequate. Therefore the required size of the enclosure depends on the number of gerbils you own.
If you own a pair, the minimum size of the enclosure should be 20 gallons (76 Liter).
Where Should You Put Your Gerbil Cage?
The gerbil cage should be located in a room with natural light. Direct sunlight is an issue because an enclosure with glass walls can heat up very quickly and you don’t want to grill your pets.
An air conditioner or ventilation should not be close to the cage and you want to make sure that the humidity is not too high. Therefore the enclosure of gerbils should not be put in a bathroom. Gerbils need very dry air.
The best place is the living room or your bedroom.
Can You Keep Gerbils in Your Bedroom?
Gerbils communicate through different sounds and through many scents. They have scent trails in their cage, which is why cleaning the cage can be stressful for them, because you get rid of all the scent trails.
Gerbils can squeak to warn each other, or if they are afraid of something. Other than that, gerbils are usually very quiet pets.
Are Gerbils Noisy at Night?
At night gerbils are not noisier than during the day. You will hear them rustle around, maybe playing with each other, and in some cases quietly squeaking. You won’t hear any loud noises from gerbils at night.
What Do Gerbils Need in Their Cage?
The environment, in which the pet gerbils live, should have comfortable resting areas, places to sleep, play, and to dig. The bottom part of the cage should be made of glass because they are able to chew through plastic. Wires are also not the best option because gerbils have furry paws and can slip on the wires of a cage. You can cover wires with wood or cork.
It is possible to use a tank divider of a topper to separate the digging space from the area with the sand bath, the water, and the wheel, but it is not essential to do so.
What do you put at the bottom of a gerbil cage? The most important activity for a gerbil is to dig, therefore the bedding or substrate you use should be rather deep to give the gerbils enough possibilities to dig tunnels in their cage.
Bedding options are non-toxic peat, paper bedding, or woodshavings in addition to straw and hay. Woodshaving alone won’t allow the gerbils to create tunnels that stay in that form.
Soil from the garden should not be used as it might contain chemicals, pesticides, or bacteria.
In addition to the bedding, you can give your gerbils hay or straw. They will use it as nesting material.
Do Gerbils Need a Sand Bath?
A sand bath is essential for gerbils. You can use a glass bowl like this with a wooden bridge so that the gerbils can easily get in and out. But basically, any kind of container will work. The sand bath will be used as a toilet and also as a place to clean the fur. This is very important for the gerbils as they need to get rid of the oils in the fur on a regular basis. Otherwise, they might have trouble thermoregulating the temperature of their bodies.
The sand for the sand bath can be either hamster or gerbil sand, reptile sand (without any calcium or dyes), or children play sand, as long as you boil and bake it in advance. Do not use bird sand, as it might contain parts of shells that can harm the gerbils.
Do Gerbils Need a Wheel?
A wheel is not essential but very welcome. Make sure that the wheel is high quality, does not have wires to run on, as the gerbils can slip, and no parts where a gerbil could squeeze the paws or the tail.
Since gerbils need to somehow trim their claws, you can put a stone in the cage for that purpose.
Wood and Cardboard
In order to trim down their teeth, gerbils need things to nibble on. You can offer them branches and twigs of apple trees or willow trees, cardboard without dye or strings, or any wooden toy from the pet store. The teeth of gerbils will grow all their life long.
Gerbils don’t necessarily need extra housing, as they will create their tunnels and nests underground. But you can put wooden houses into the bedding and the gerbils will find them while digging the tunnels.
Everything that is heavy (e.g. sand bath bowl, wheel, stone, etc.) should be placed on some kind of platform to make sure that it does not come down on your gerbils if they build a tunnel right under that object.
Do Gerbils Need Hay?
Gerbils are rodents, but they don’t eat hay other than guinea pigs. You can still give them hay, and they will play with it, nibble on it, and use it for their nests, but if you don’t give them hay, it’s also completely fine.
As a whole, gerbils do not necessarily need hay. They will not eat hay but will nibble on hay to wear down their teeth which grow throughout their lives. They also use the day as nesting material.
If you decided to give your gerbils wood shavings as bedding, hay or straw will be necessary to build the tunnels, because the woodshavings will not stay inform on their own.
Do Gerbils Like Being in Balls?
Plastic balls to run in are usually made for hamsters. It is possible to let gerbils run in a plastic ball, too, but not every gerbil will like it.
As a whole, some gerbils like running in balls, while others don’t. It is possible to let a gerbil run in a hamster ball, but it’s not necessary.
If you want your gerbil to run in a plastic ball, you should get a rather big one, so that the gerbil can get used to the limited amount of space. Do not let your gerbil run in a plastic ball unattended to avoid any accidents.
What Kind of Toys Do Gerbils Like?
Gerbils are curious animals with lots of energy. They love to dig tunnels, build nests, run around, climb on things, and explore new areas.
As a whole, gerbils like things they can chew on, wheels to exercise, and things to explore. Wooden toys, tunnels, bridges, cardboards, twigs and branches, things to climb on, and chew toys are great toys for gerbils.
The teeth of gerbils grow throughout their lives. This is why they love to nibble on various materials such as wood and cardboard, to trim down their teeth.
Great toys are cardboard without dye or strings. You can give them egg cartons, or cardboard boxes to nibble on.
Spinning wheels are great for most gerbils. Not every gerbil will love them, but the majority of them enjoy doing some exercise on a wheel.
You can also offer your gerbils wooden toys, such as tunnels out of natural, untreated wood. You can get toys like that at the local pet store or on the internet.
Gerbils also love wooden toys they can climb on.
Chew toys for gerbils are also great for gerbils. Many chew toys can be used for rabbits, guinea pigs, or other rodents as well. The toys from pet stores are safe for gerbils and will usually last for quite a while.
If you want to let your gerbils run free outside of the cage, you can either find a room that can be completely closed without any chance to escape, or you can use some kind of playpen to keep them in one area. Since they love to explore new things, they will enjoy exploring areas outside of the cage. Keep in mind that gerbils chew on everything. They might even chew on furniture, doors, chairs, and other things that they can reach during their time outside of the cage.
Do Gerbils Like Water Baths?
Gerbils do not like water baths. Originally they came from the steppes, where the air is very dry and water is rare. In order to clean themselves, gerbils take sand baths. That’s the only kind of bath a gerbil enjoys.
How Often Should You Clean Your Gerbil Cage?
Gerbils highly rely on the sense of smell. They leave smell trails in their enclosure and recognize their family members by their smell.
Keeping the cage clean is important, but deep cleaning the entire cage will lead to confused and stressed gerbils, because you will get rid of all the smells they got used to.
As a whole, the sand bath in a gerbil cage should be cleaned with a sieve every day. The entire cage should be cleaned every 2 to 3 months, depending on the size of the cage and how dirty it is.
Even if you plan to deep-clean the enclosure, make sure to spare some of the bedding. You can take out some of the used, but still clean bedding and put it aside while exchanging the rest of the bedding. Clean the rest of the cage, and put the “old” bedding back in, after you are done. Your gerbils will be very grateful.
What Do Gerbils Eat?
Gerbils are mostly herbivorous. For gerbils that are kept as pets, the best food is dried gerbil food from the pet store. In addition to that gerbil food mixture, you can also offer them full-grain crispbread, vegetables, fruits, and mealworms as a treat.
As a whole, gerbils eat seeds, nuts, insects, fruits, and vegetables. Pet gerbils should be fed a gerbil food mixture from the pet store, some fruits, vegetables, and mealworms as a treat. A healthy, adult gerbil will eat around 6 – 10 grams (0.2 – 0.35 ounces) of food.
Vegetables that can be fed are for example carrots, cucumber, cooked potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, and pumpkin.
Fruits should not be fed too much because they contain a lot of sugar. You can offer your gerbils apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, melon, pears, as well as many other fruits.
Don’t feed too many vegetables and fruits. Both contain a lot of moisture and can lead to diarrhea. Dried vegetables and fruits are a healthy option.
The mealworms as treats are important because, in nature, gerbils sometimes eat insects for their necessary supply of protein. But since mealworms have high calories, they should not be fed all the time to prevent overweight.
They love to nibble on twigs. Make sure that the twigs are without any pesticides. You can use twigs from apple trees or willow trees.
Do Gerbils Need to Be Kept in Pairs?
In nature, gerbils usually live in pairs of one male and one female. They tend to do everything together. Without a partner, gerbils will be very lonely and unhappy. It is essential to keep gerbils in pairs. It is best to keep them in same-sex couples to prevent reproduction.
Where Can You Get Gerbils?
Before you pick up your gerbils, you will need to get a carrier for the transport. If you are planning to get your gerbils from a local pet store, they usually provide the customers with a paper box for the animals. But gerbils have sharp teeth and nibble on almost everything. A paper box might not be enough to keep them inside, depending on the character of the gerbil and the duration of the drive. A carrier is definitively the better option to keep your gerbils safe. You really don’t want a panicking gerbil running around in your car. This is by far not the best start for your gerbil and you.
As a whole, you can get gerbils from local breeders, pet stores, animal shelters, and online.
The best option is usually the local breeder. But many pet stores also care a lot for their animals and keep them in good condition. You should definitively make sure that the gerbils look happy and healthy.
Gerbils from local breeders are often already tame because they got used to being handled from a very young age. Gerbils from pet stores are usually very shy when you get them.
You can also have a look at local animal shelters. Not all of them will have gerbils, but it’s worth checking.
It is also possible to buy gerbils online. This is by far not the best option, because shipping live animals will cause stress and if possible, you should go for one of the three other options.
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 🙂