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Gerbil Care Handbook

Gerbil Care


There are a number of good choices for your new gerbils home. The most popular for a pair is a ten-gallon aquarium, for a number of reasons. It is inexpensive, easy to clean, roomy, and allows for great creativity. It will be necessary to have a small animal top, both to keep the gerbil from escaping and for its safety.

General minimum guidelines:

10-gallon tank 1 or 2 gerbils
15-gallon tank 3 gerbils
20-gallon tank 4 gerbils
30-gallon tank 6 gerbils

There are two popular types of lids available in most pet stores. They are both inexpensive and safe. The first is a simple fine wire lid. The second has a number of fittings to allow for 'habitat' tubes. If you are not near a large pet store, simply make your own lids with hardware cloth. It takes about $1.50 to make a lid for a 10-gallon aquarium. Make sure the lid is secure with commercial or homemade lid clips, especially if you have cats.

A large variety of wire cages can also be found, everything from a simple cage to a multilevel condo. There are several drawbacks to cages though. First, gerbils love to rearrange and dig in their bedding. I like to give my gerbils two or three inches of bedding to play and romp in. With all the playing, scurrying, and digging the bedding would end up all over the floor. Second, multilevel cages with ladders can cause a hazard to young pups. It is not unheard of for a pup to break its leg in the wire rungs. It is not advisable to use this type of cage with a breeding pair. Third, gerbils often gnaw on wire cages incessantly, which can be both annoying to you and harmful to them.

The third type of home easily found is the plastic habitat. Although these are very popular, they have poor ventilation and smell rather quickly. Additionally, they are easy for gerbils to escape from and over time are gnawed to ruins.

Bedding Material:

Gerbils require bedding to absorb their urine, as well as for digging fun. They don't urinate all that much, so it doesn't need to be perfumed. The best choices are aspen, Carefresh, and corncob beddings. The average 10-gallons with two gerbils in it will only need cleaning every two to three weeks. If water is spilled or it smells you will have to change it. When cleaned on a regular basis a gerbil tank/cages should never smell. Fill the tank or cage 1/3 full with bedding. They love to pile it up, and bury their food in it. If you are breeding, two inches should be sufficient.

WARNING: Do not use Cedar or Pine Bedding; they can be harmful to all gerbils, but particularly pups. They've been known to cause respiratory problems and liver damage.

Nesting Material:

Plain white unscented tissue provides a safe and inexpensive nesting material Shred it into narrow strips and leave the rest to them as they build great whip cream castles out of tissue paper!

WARNING: Commercial nesting material looks soft and fluffy and perfect for a lovely nest, however it is very dangerous to gerbils. Gerbils can become entangled in it, amputating a foot. (Even if it only happens to 1 in a 100 gerbils, it's not worth the risk!) They can eat small amounts that may later cause a blockage.

Nesting Box:

A simple nesting box will provide your gerbils a nice place to sleep, hide, and find some privacy. You can make a nesting box out of wood, or buy a commercial one at a pet store. A plastic one is not recommended, since the gerbils would chew it within a week.

NOTE: Many breeders do not advise the use of a nesting box with a breeding pair, since pups have been know to be trapped under or behind them.

Water Bottle:

Each tank/cage will need it's own water bottle. There are a number of styles and most come with a simple wire hanger to use with cages. If you are using an aquarium you will need to purchase a special bottle holder/shield. Be sure that the tip of the water bottle is well above the bedding. If the tip comes in contact with the bedding or other material it will drain out in a matter of hours. Even though gerbils are a desert animal they require clean, fresh water at all times.

Check the water every day to make sure it has not run dry and is operating properly. (When you tap your finger to the nipple, and you should get a drop of water.)


A good premixed gerbil food is recommended. It is easy to get the right combination of protein, minerals, vitamins, and bulk. Sunflower seeds tend to be very high in fat, and, therefore, are fattening. A good idea is to pick out the sunflower seeds and hand feed them to your gerbils over the course of the day. This has a double benefit. First, no one gerbil hoards them and gets too fat. Second, it is an excellent way to hand tame and bond with your gerbils.

Follow these general guidelines:

Gerbil age/situation Protein Fat
Non-breeding 12% 7%
Older 2+ 10.5% 4%
Breeders 15.5% 8%

Food can be placed directly on the bedding in the center of the tank allowing the gerbils to forage. Food can also be served in small ceramic dishes sold at stores, or made out of small cat food or tuna cans. Most gerbils will bury their food dish in their bedding. This is their way of protecting it from other gerbils. Don't worry they will be able to find it with no problem.

If you want to give your gerbils a treat, try things like Cheerios and Rice Krispies cereals (nothing with artificial flavor, sugar, or marshmallow). They also enjoy the occasional peanut, but those are very fatty. They also like an apple, carrot, and lettuce, but remove it after one day and don't give it to them too often. You might want to give a large piece (say half an apple) to gnaw on for a few hours then remove it. Small pieces can get lost in the bedding and rot.

Food Dish:

A food dish is not necessary because the gerbils will just bury it under their bedding. If you would prefer one, use a small heavy ceramic dish, so they can't tip it over as easily.

Traveling With Gerbils

If you need to move, you will find that gerbils travel quite well, provided that you take some precautions. You can learn more by reading the AGS’ guide for show-goers about Traveling With Gerbils.

Toys and Exercise:

Gerbils are very active animals, and they need an entertaining environment. Let your imagination be your guide.

A four by four makes a great toy. Have several large holes drilled through it. Ask whether the lumberyard will do the cutting and drilling for you. They are also cheap, as you can use scrap pieces. This will provide the gerbils with entertainment and a great chew toy.

WARNING: Be sure that the lumber is not treated!

Special wooden play/chew toys can be purchase at pet stores in the shape of cheese wedges or treasure chests.

Every time you finish off a roll of toilet paper add it to the aquarium. The gerbils will run in and out of the tube before settling down to a good gnaw. They love it, but within a few hours it will be shredded. For those having multiple tanks, you might find yourself getting these from family, friends, co-workers…anywhere you can to keep your gerbils "in cardboard". Heavier cardboard boxes work well to climb on and nest in and will last longer.

You can use traditional wire hamster wheel in your aquariums. BUT… there are several precautions that must be taken before using them with your gerbil! First, to save on room hang the wheels from the wire tank lid. This keeps it three to four inches off the tank floor. A simple way to attach the wheel to the tank lid is by using twist ties. They work well, and are easily removed.

Second, tightly cover the outside of the wheel with a heavy masking tape (but not plastic or anything with embedded threads). Then carefully coat the inside of the wheel with bedding. This covers up the tape, and prevents the gerbil's feet from sticking. See picture below.

Some gerbils love their wheel, and play in it for hours! Others are will have nothing to do with the wheel.

WARNING: Tails can get caught in uncovered wheels and be amputated.

10 gallon tank
A basic 10-gallon aquarium set up. There is a layer of corncob bedding covering the floor, and lots of shredded plain, unscented tissue for a nest. They have a water bottle attached high enough that it will not touch the bedding as they dig. A food dish is located in the corner under a hanging wheel. There are some tubes for them to play in.
Boys tank
The 'Boys Tank' This setup has the bottom of a plastic critter cage in the back left filled with sand. It starts out as a sandbox and is later a potty to keep waste to one area of the tank. The left side is corn cob to dig in. In the middle there are some kitchen shelving steps, and couple of boxes for climbing and gnawind. The right side has carefresh for tunneling and a nest box with unscented toilet tissue underneath. This setup is interesting for larger clan, but *important* it only has one logical place for them to nest.

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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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