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Gerbil Care Handbook

Behaviors

Thumping:

There are two reasons gerbils thump: to warn other gerbils in their colony of danger or in sexual excitement. When alarmed or excited, gerbils will make a rhythmic thumping sound with their hind feet. Usually only one gerbil in an enclosure will do this while the others perk up their ears and listen. It's really amusing when you have several tanks of gerbils and one gerbil will thump an alarm, and another in another aquarium will thump back! It's their way of communicating danger. Gerbils produce this thump by stomping both their feet on the ground. It is amazing how loud and how long they can thump. While we may not be able to differentiate between the two types of thumps, gerbils can certainly tell the difference. While an alarm thump may produce a chorus of warning thumps, a mating thumps will often go ignored.

Grooming:

Grooming is not only a way to keeps clean, but also it is a vital part of the social infrastructure of gerbils. Pairs, parents, and pups will spend a lot of time each day grooming each other. Regular daily grooming is a sign that all is well in the family group.

Fighting:

There are two distinct types of fighting: play fighting, and serious fighting. Play fighting goes on frequently among gerbils, especially pups. It is what we always called 'roughhousing'. They will pounce and jump on each other, then give a wild chase around the tank. In a gerbil-boxing match they will stand on their hind legs and hit at each other, much the way you may have seen kangaroos box.

Gerbils live in small family groups in the wild. There is one dominant pair that mates, and a number of their older offspring that help care for the young. When one of the subordinate gerbils is ready to start its own family, it will move on.

When kept in captivity gerbils cannot move on. They are forced to live as we, their humans, see fit. This means that what might be a simple scuffle and chase in the wild may end up a deadly battle in captivity. A fight between gerbils is called a declanning.

Much fighting can be avoided by following a few rules.

  1. always introduce two strange gerbils using the split cage method. (details found under "Split Cage Introductions"). Young pups, sexually mature pairs, and an older male and young pup clan most easily
  2. never try to introduce a single gerbil to a pair or group of gerbils
  3. small groups and even-numbered groups are preferable to larger groups
  4. never, ever breed more than one female in a single tank
  5. when a second litter arrives remove all but 1-3 older pups to keep from overcrowding

There are a few warning signs that trouble is brewing. One gerbil may lose weight, stop sleeping in the nest, or most seriously, have bite marks on its head or rump and tail. If you see these signs pressure may be building, and a fight imminent. One way to prevent gerbils from fighting is to keep the tank simple, with only open structures and with only one logical, enclosed box to nest in. When gerbils do fight, they are very violent and often fight to the death. Once blood has been drawn, reconciliation is unlikely.

If you have experienced a declanning, please fill out our declanning survey to help us better understand this behavior.

Marking:

If you look at your gerbil's stomach you will see a small patch of bearskin; this is their scent gland. It produces an oily secretion that they use to mark their territory. They will mark everything that is in their territory, as well as, family members. This is done by rubbing their stomach or mounting the object or other gerbil.

Digging Madly In The Corner:

A lot of people mistake gerbils' habit of digging in the corner of their cages as an urge to get out. It isn't. This is known as "stereotyped digging" and is caused by the gerbils' natural instinct to burrow. It has long been considered a harmless behavior, although some newer research suggests that animals whose tanks are too small or lack sufficient tunnelling material are more likely to exhibit this behavior. If you see a lot of it, see if adding deeper bedding, more chewable cardboard or other diversions helps your gerbils find other things to do.

Escapes:

Gerbils, being the mad geniuses they are, are sometimes very good at escaping. It is vital that you have a lid on your aquarium and make sure there is no way your gerbils can escape. If they do escape, seal of all exits to every room in your home, put the cats/dogs out or in a small room (that you're SURE the gerbil isn't in!) and start looking.

Escapees are not likely to travel far from their home, so start in the room where their tank is kept. Slowly move around the room; looking under and behind the furniture or in the back corner of the nearest closet. Once you have found them sit down quietly and wait for them to come out. They usually can't resist investigating. If they are very friendly, confident, and recognize you as the source of good food they may come near enough that you can carefully scoop them up.

Often a gerbil will come right up to their tank; if it is placed on the floor, especially pups.

Keep a 1 - 2 foot section of PVC piping handy. Lay it on the floor near where they are hiding. Sit back a ways and be very quiet. Whey the gerbil investigates the PVC pipe quickly drop a towel over it; blocking both exits. Quickly, but carefully put your hands over the two ends. (You will only have a few seconds.) A shoebox with a small hole in one side can often work, too.

If you absolutely can't get your gerbil out of hiding, or can't find it, set out a number of sunflower seeds on the floor along with a dish of water in that room (or in each room if you can't find them). Count the number of seeds, and check back later. Often you'll find the husks of shells left over, which means the gerbil has been there. You might be able to set a high-sided trap with ramps leading up to the side, and a towel to climb down (the weigh of the gerbil should pull it into the trap). The idea is that the gerbil can get into it but not climb out.


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The Gerbil Care Handbook may not be copied, in whole or part, without prior written permission from the American Gerbil Society.

Note: The Gerbil Care Handbook is provided for informational purposes only. Diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions should always be in consultation with one's own veterinarian. The AGS disclaims all warranties and liability related to the information contained on these pages.


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