Gerbils are small rodents that look incredibly cute with their big eyes and furry tails. The Mongolian Gerbil has become very popular as a pet and found its way into many households as a family member. But gerbils are not the cuddliest pets you could have. They are energetic little furballs which sharp teeth and they are not hesitant about using them when they feel threatened in any way.
As a whole, the main reasons for a gerbil to bite is self-defense, if it was startled by anything, aggression towards other gerbils, and territorial reasons. A gerbil does not bite without a reason.
If your gerbil keeps biting you, you might not have formed a proper bond yet.
There are also many other reasons that could encourage biting, such as stress or fear. In the following article, you will find reasons for biting as well as ways to teach your gerbil not to bite or nibble on your anymore.
Why Does a Gerbil Bite?
There are several reasons for gerbils biting the owner. And there is a lot that you can do to keep them from biting you.
Stress Caused by Noises, Lights, or Movements can Cause Gerbils to Bite
Gerbils are very sensitive animals. They don’t like a lot of movement around the cage, they are easily startled by sudden noises, loud sounds, flashlights, or even quick movements on a nearby TV.
If you just got your gerbil and it is exposed to a completely new environment, it can also cause a lot of stress for the gerbil.
If a gerbil is constantly stressed, it can lead to overall aggressive behavior that also includes biting the owner.
How to Reduce Stress Caused by Noises, Light, or Movements for Gerbils
If a gerbil is generally stressed, it will not only bite you, but it might also start attacking other gerbils, excessively scratching itself, and maybe even refusing to eat.
Try to avoid any stressful situations for your gerbils. You can place the cage in a calmer environment such as a bedroom.
If the gerbil is new to the environment, just give it some time to settle in, before you start interacting with your new pet.
Stress Caused by Other Gerbils
Introducing new gerbils to an existing group, or to a single gerbil whose partner has died is always an exciting and nerve-wracking activity.
You never know how the gerbils will get along, and their territorial mindset might lead to dangerous fights if the socialization is not done properly.
It can also happen that a single gerbil is being bullied by other gerbils.
How to Reduce Stress Caused by Other Gerbils
If a single gerbil is being bullied by the others, you should remove that gerbil from the group. When gerbils fight, they can be very aggressive and it can lead to serious injuries.
You can use a cage with a separating metal wire wall so that the gerbils can see and smell each other but they cannot fight anymore. Maybe this tactic can help to integrate a gerbil better.
But if it does not change the aggressive behavior, you might want to look for a new home for the bullied gerbil.
If you are planning to integrate a new gerbil into an existing group, you should check out the article “Can my gerbil live alone”. You will find a step-by-step plan on how to introduce a gerbil to an existing group.
Fear and Insecurity Can Lead to Biting
A gerbil that is startled or scared will not necessarily bite. Gerbils are prey animals which makes them very alert and always aware of their surrounding. If you grab them from behind or hold them in a way they cannot get away, they will first try to flee and if that is not possible they will bite to escape the situation that scares them.
In the wild, gerbils hide in their underground tunnel system if a predator approaches. In captivity, the hand of the owner might appear as such a threat and the gerbil might attack.
How to Avoid Fear and Insecurity in Gerbils
Forming a strong bond with your pet gerbil is the best way to avoid any kind of fear or insecurity. If your gerbil trusts you, it has no reason to be afraid.
Spend time with your cute furballs, play with them, create a playground for them, interact with them, give them treats, and teach them that it is ok to be handled by you. The chances that a relaxed and happy gerbil will bite you are very low.
Gerbils tend to live in pairs or family groups in the wild and they do not accept any other gerbils in their territory.
In the wild, a foreign gerbil will be attacked and fought back until it runs away. Unfortunately running away is not possible for newly introduced gerbils in captivity which can lead to serious fights and injuries if the introduction of new gerbils is not done correctly.
This territorial behavior can also lead to biting the owner. If you put your hand in the cage, the gerbil might mistake you for danger and attack you.
How to Avoid Biting Due to Territorial Behavior
Make sure that your pet gerbil does not see you as a predator or enemy. Form a trustful bond between you and your pet, and move slowly if you have to put your hand in the cage.
A Strong or Unfamiliar Smell of the Owner
Gerbils depend on their sense of smell when it comes to recognizing family members. If a gerbil (or the owner, who somehow belongs to the family) does not smell familiar, it is not accepted in the cage.
This can also happen if a gerbil has to be away from its family due to medical issues for several days or weeks.
When it comes back and smells differently, the other gerbils might not accept it as part of the family anymore.
Anyone who smells differently might be an intruder and will be fought back aggressively to protect the family.
How to Avoid Biting Due to the Unfamiliar Smell of the Owner
Do not use perfumed soap or perfume in general if you are about to handle your gerbils. Gerbils have a very strong sense of smell and get confused or even scared by new smells. You can also rub some bedding from the cage on your hand to make sure that you smell familiar.
What to Do if a Gerbil Bites You
If your pet gerbil keeps biting you, you should try to find out what causes the biting. Here are some things that might help you to avoid getting bitten by your gerbil.
If the bites are very aggressive, put on gloves to protect yourself, if you have to handle the gerbil.
- Avoid any stressful circumstances (noises, movements, sudden flashlights, bullying gerbils)
- Don’t use perfumed soap, as this strong smell might set the gerbils off
- Rub your hand into the bedding to smell familiar
- Move slowly
- Never grab your gerbil from behind. It might startle your pet, leading to an aggressive response
- Put your hand into the cage with a treat on it and wait for the gerbil to come out and get the treat
- If it is only a gentle (but still painful) nibble without drawing blood you can try to GENTLY push the nose away when the gerbil is nibbling. Another way to say “I don’t like this” is to blow in the face of the gerbil. They hate that, don’t blow too strong.
Why do Gerbils Bite Their Cage?
Sometimes gerbils start biting the metal wires of the cage or scratch the bottom of the cage. This behavior can have different reasons.
As a whole, biting the jars of the cage can be a sign of boredom, a cage that is too small and does not allow the gerbil to move around enough, the desire to escape, or a sign of stress.
You should observe your gerbils and find out why they bite the cage. It is never a good sign, therefore you should change something about the settings.
If your gerbils are simply bored, you could let them run free in a closed-off area in your room or create a bigger playground. You can also start to scatter their food in the cage instead of using a food bowl to animate them to run around and search for their food as they would do in the wild.
A running wheel, a bigger cage, more toys, or different bedding that allows them to build proper tunnels could also be a solution.
What Does it Mean When a Gerbil Nibbles on You?
When a gerbil bites you softly, and it does not draw blood, it can mean different things.
As a whole, possible reasons for gerbils nibbling on the owner’s hand are tasting the hand, showing the owner that they want to be left alone, and it can even mean that they want to play.
Young gerbils tend to nibble on the fingers to taste them. It is not unusual and many gerbils go through the “nibbling”-phase. As long as the nibbles are soft and don’t hurt too much, you can tell them “No” by gently pushing the nose away when they nibble or blowing softly in their faces.
If a gerbil wants to be left alone, it might warn you with a stronger nibble. It won’t draw blood but it will hurt. Do not try to interact with the gerbil if it wants to be left alone. The next step might be a strong bite.
A gerbil that is very excited might ask you to play by nibbling the finger. You should not encourage this kind of behavior, or the playful nibbles will increase.
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 🙂