Gerbils can make great pets. They are very cute, social animals, that are usually kept in pairs or groups of three. Even though gerbils are usually friendly and cuddly with each other, they are also known for aggressive fights that can lead to serious injuries. But why do gerbils fight?
As a whole, there are several potential reasons for gerbils to fight. Gerbils are extremely territorial animals and will fight off any intruder. Stress can also be a trigger for fights, as well as establishing the social hierarchy in a group. Young gerbils tend to play-fight, which might look like a serious fight.
In the following, you will find more detailed information on the reasons why gerbils fight, if you should let them fight or intervene, and how to stop them from fighting if necessary.
What are the Reasons for Gerbils Fighting?
Gerbils are the cutest little furballs most of the time. They are adorable with their furry tail and curious, energetic character. But they can also be furious and aggressive if they feel threatened or stressed.
Gerbils that have been living together for years might suddenly become enemies and fight aggressively. Or the dynamic within a group of gerbils suddenly changes and a single gerbil is being bullied by the rest. What are the reasons for gerbils fighting with each other?
Gerbils are Very Territorial
Gerbils are extremely territorial animals. They protect their families and their nests at all costs. Gerbils that are not part of the family are not allowed into the territory and will be chased away.
They identify each other by their smell. Every gerbil of one family, as well as the entire territory (in the case of pet gerbils it’s the entire cage), smells familiar and the scents are regularly refreshed by the gerbils to make sure that they are able to recognize each other.
If a gerbil does not smell familiar, it is obviously not part of the family and has no right to be somewhere close. Unfortunately, the scent changes quickly if a single gerbil is separated from the group for a while.
If one gerbil has to stay at the vet’s place for a few days, this can already be enough for the scent to change, and when that gerbil comes back home, the other gerbils will not accept it anymore as part of the family.
There is even a chance that the cage is set up in a way that allows the gerbils to establish two different territories and all of a sudden they start fighting because they both assume to be the dominant gerbil in their territory.
Every cage should only have one place for nesting and sleeping so that the gerbils don’t start to establish their individual territories.
This behavior is more common for males than for females.
Stress Can Lead to Fights
A gerbil that is stressed is more likely to fight other gerbils or bite the owner. Stress can be caused by numerous reasons such as:
- The cage that is too small
- Unfamiliar scents, e.g. caused by a room perfume
- Constant loud noises
- Regular sudden movements around the cage, e.g. caused by a TV
- Boredom due to a lack of items to play with
- Relocation of the cage
- Completely new and clean cage (a cage should never be completely cleaned) and all the familiar scents are gone
Stress can lead to awkward behavior such as confusion, lack of appetite, excessive scratching, and aggression towards each and every one.
If you notice any signs of stress, try to find the reason. If a single gerbil seems to be very stressed, the cause might not be external, but maybe some kind of disease. If you are unsure, you should take the gerbil to the vet for a check-up.
Social Hierarchy can Cause Infighting
Gerbils are very social animals and tend to live in pairs in the wild. The male and female gerbil breed and the young gerbils stay with their parents until they want to start their own families. Only the dominant pair will mate within one family.
In captivity, foreign gerbils are put together. The groups are usually of the same sex to prevent breeding, and there is no possibility to leave the group.
So if one gerbil wants to be the new leader of a group, it is not possible to simply leave and found a new family, therefore this gerbil might question the dominance of the current leader of the group, and provoke a fight.
It can also happen, that the current dominant gerbil is getting older, weaker, or is sick, and another gerbil is taking that chance to take over. A sudden weight loss of the dominant gerbil due to deprivation of food and water can be an indication of this behavior.
Fights to settle the social hierarchy can happen at all times, but especially when new gerbils are introduced to a group, or if adolescent gerbils become older and question the existing hierarchy.
Fights to settle the hierarchy might look brutal, but as long as no gerbil is hurt, it is ok to let them fight. If you notice any injuries, you should quickly put on some good gloves and rescue the injured gerbil, before it might be killed.
All gerbils like to play-fight. This is totally normal behavior and it includes jumping around and boxing each other. This is also a way to establish their hierarchy within the group without hurting each other.
But if you see the gerbils starting to bite each other in the head area or in the tail, the fight is getting serious and you might have to intervene. Other indications, that the fight is getting out of hand are puffed fur on the back and hissing or chattering of teeth.
Is it Ok for Gerbils to Fight?
As long as gerbils are only play-fighting, it’s ok. If gerbils start to injure each other, you might have to intervene and separate the gerbils (never with your bare hands!) to avoid any serious injuries.
Can Gerbils Kill Each Other?
As a whole, yes, gerbils can kill each other during a fight. It is very rare for gerbils to fight until one dies because in the wild the defeated gerbil would run away. In captivity that might not be possible due to the limitations of a cage, which forces them to continue fighting.
How do I Stop My Gerbils From Fighting?
The most obvious way is to remove either the troublemaker or the victim from the group. Unfortunately, it is often hard to identify the individual that causes the problems. Other gerbils tend to gang up against the losing gerbil during a fight, and all of a sudden all gerbils are involved.
In order to stop gerbils from fighting, it is important to find out what causes the gerbils to fight.
- If the gerbils fight over hierarchy, it is hard to stop them from fighting and you might end up separating the gerbils for good.
- If the reasons for the fight are boredom or stress caused by any external trigger, you can try to remove or reduce whatever is causing the stress.
- If the fights started after introducing a new gerbil to the group, you might want to separate the gerbils again and start all over with the introduction ritual by having a wired wall between your gerbils so that they can smell each other and slowly get used to each other without being able to fight.
- Larger groups of females have a stronger tendency to fight, therefore it might be easier to keep either small groups of two or three females, or go for males. Males also fight, but in general they fight less than females.
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 🙂