WRITTEN BY DONNA ANASTASI | EDITED BY JENNIFER PARLATI
Making the Decision to Breed
Many people are looking for a way to make quick and easy money. Puppy mills and large catteries have fallen prone to indiscriminate breeding and in many instances horrific conditions. Read as many gerbil sites as you can and one thing will become absolutely clear. You won’t get rich raising them! The only reason to raise gerbils, or any other animal, is love. We have stewardship over each gerbil that comes into our home. We are responsible for their health and happiness. This will require a great deal of time, money, and patience.
So, do you still want to raise gerbils? If the answer is “yes,” then you have several primary considerations. How many gerbils do you want to have? How many can you realistically care for and house? You will need to have adequate space for a mating pair and for their pups, up to eight. Once the young pups are weaned they will need to be separated into two tanks, for males and females. Each new litter of pups will need to have hands on attention, so they will be used to human contact.
Are you going to sell the pups? One pair of gerbils can have a litter every thirty days, or twelve litters a year. A litter can be from one to eight babies, if each litter consists of four babies that would be forty-eight pups a year. Two mating pair would produce ninety-six pups or more a year. Can your market support that many pups?
Selecting the Breeding Pair
When breeding gerbils the most important factor to success and a good experience all around is the selection of your breeding pair. The choices are pet store or breeder. If you purchase your pair from the pet store, get the male and female from two different pet stores that are quite some distance apart. That way you are assured that the two gerbils are not related.
When selecting your breeding pair demand excellence in:
- Health – I select the strongest from the litters to breed and avoid runts or gerbils that have had any issues as a pup, such as respiratory infections or other illness.
- Temperament – The gerbils should be the ones that come right up to you to sit on your hand and beg to come out. By genetics and example their people friendliness will be passed on to the babies. The gerbils should also be gerbil gentle (which is a completely separate factor from how people oriented they are). This means they are easily introduced to other gerbils (especially to a pup) and stay clanned.
- Color – Why is color so important? While great temperament and top health are the first considerations, breeding for the more popular colors will make placing your babies easier. REW/PEW, plain Agouti, and solid Black can be harder to place. Spotted anything, rich colors, and color points are in demand. Before setting up a breeding pair, it is good to understand basic gerbil genetics so you know what colors the pair will produce.
The advantage to getting a pair from a breeder is that you can meet the parents. You can ask the breeder questions: What is the overall fatality rate of the breeder’s pups? What is the fatality rate of the breeding pair that birthed your pup? What have their pups died from? (note that a fatality rate of 1:10 or less including stillbirths is good.) How inbred/related are the parents? (ask for a pedigree). Did the pup you are interested in have any health problems or injuries? Did it start as a runt, any respiratory problems, any difficulty weaning? Did any of the siblings die? From what cause? How are the parents with other gerbils? Has the breeder even had a problem with clanning them with an adult or pup in the past? A reputable breeder will be straightforward in answering your questions and appreciate your goal of raising healthy babies.
Once you have your male and female gerbil, you will have to introduce them to one another. If they are babies (6-8 weeks) and the female is the same size or smaller, you might try a direct introduction. However, a split cage introduction is always the safest way to introduce two gerbils.
Once you have your male and female and they are fast friends, create an environment for them that is conducive to breeding. Your breeding pair should be located in a quiet and calm area of the house where there is not a lot of traffic nor sudden loud noises. You do want the pups to get used to people and sounds, though. Place the tank so that your gerbils have some privacy from other tanks and animals.
It is critical that you never breed with more than one adult female in the tank – gerbils are a matriarchy and the females will fight to the death over the males. A male-female pair establishes an intimate bond and is the perfect breeding arrangement.
It is important that you leave the dad in with mom to help her raise the babies. Otherwise the experience will be stressful for the mother gerbil and she may not be able to handle it on her own – especially a first time or older mom. If you do split a breeding pair, leave a daughter from the last litter to help mom raise the pups.
Keep the breeding tank very simple. Many people lose pups because they’ve fallen off ledges, got caught under or behind a box, or taken a run with mom in the wheel, etc. When I breed, I use only about three inches of Carefresh, unscented toilet tissue, a water bottle hung low for the pups to reach, and a towel draped over the tank. Nothing else. No material or fibers or “fluff” sold in pet stores even paper towels contain fibers that can be wrapped around a pup’s leg or worse. I throw in a half toilet paper roll for the parents to gnaw up every day so they don’t go too loopy.
What about the bedding material? I personally believe corncob is the safest. But because I keep the tank so simple, with corncob there is not place to tunnel or hide and can make them more stressed or skittish, so I’d have to use a wooden or cardboard nestbox. Since I do not like to keep anything in the tank, I use Carefresh or a layer of corn cob with two inches of Carefresh on top. At the first sign of respiratory infection, I medicate with Ornyacline (see below) and switch over to corncob and unscented toilet tissue for several days. Using corncob and a nestbox versus Carefresh is a trade-off. Breeders using corncob have reported no problems with respiratory in pups whatsoever.
A pregnant gerbil does not require a lot of special care. Make sure to handle her gently and do not drop her, especially in the last days of the pregnancy. Give her a high quality gerbil food with at least 15% protein. I personally feed L&M Vita Vittles Gold. Some breeders supplement with extra protein, e.g., dry kitten food or scrambled egg. I fish out the peanuts for the mother gerbil. A pregnant and nursing gerbil must have a constant water supply. Check that the water bottle is filled and working properly at least once a day. If the water bottle runs dry the mother gerbil may have to resort to sacrificing one of her pups as a source of liquid so she can continue to nurse the litter and no one wants that.
Mating and Birthing
Your gerbils will most likely mate at about three months of age. If one of the pair is older and especially if one is an experienced breeder, mating is likely to occur within a couple of weeks. Gerbils usually mate in the early evening and it is a two hour ritual of chase, “tag”, and each checking their undersides. This site shows gerbils mating. A female gerbil will produce pups until she is two years old. A male gerbil will produce babies throughout his lifetime.
If this is a first litter or your gerbils are not raising/nursing pups when they mate, the gestation will be 24 days. Mark your calendar! The pregnancy might go as long as 28 days.
A pregnant gerbil does not “show” until a few days before the birth. She will start to feel heavier and become pear shaped with a bulge in the belly area.
When the babies are being birthed it is best not to disturb the parents. You might watch from a distance; but not too close and do not disturb the tank or handle the parents or babies. A female gerbil will reach down from underneath, pull out the baby, clean it, and eat the placenta. During the birthing or immediately after the gerbil pair will mate, again this may last for a couple of hours. Do not worry about the babies being neglected for that time, they will do fine. The mother gerbil should gather the babies into a nest, but sometimes might not do this until after the birthing and mating is complete.
The First Few Days
Most gerbils are excellent parents and would never cannibalize their babies (unless their water source ran dry). However, if a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth, the parents instinct is to “clean up” to keep the tank sanitized, if you do not remove the body right away.
If only one pup is birthed or only one pups survives the birthing, it normally cannot stimulate enough milk flow on its own. The best thing is to foster with a litter of young pups. A local AGS breeder might be able to help you. https://agsgerbils.org/find-gerbils/
After the birthing, the mother usually kicks the father out of the nest for 24-48 hours while the mother attends to the babies. On occasion, a dad gerbil will sneak a pup or two into his nest for company. I generally will return those to mom.
Always wash your hands before you handle the pups – though gerbils usually don’t mind the smell of their people, foreign smells such as soot, strange gerbils, stale litter, etc. could make the gerbils reject or even attack the babies.
If the mother seems to be distracted and is running around, digging, or scratching in the corners, leave her alone in a quiet room, drape a towel over half the tank, and give her some unscented toilet tissues. You may want to warm one corner of the tank, but not too hot! I use a clamp lamp and a 40 watt grow light positioned several inches from the tank. Use a thermometer to make sure the temperature is not any higher than 85 degrees F.
A mother gerbil may move the litter from one corner of the tank to the other, especially if she feels nervous or threatened. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Usually after a few days this behavior will stop and the mother will keep the gerbils in one corner of the tank.
It is important in the first several days after the pups are born that you do not to change anything about the environment. Do not clean out the tank, do not move the location of the tank, do not give them cardboard or new toys, do not take anything out of the tank. Most definitely do not remove the father gerbil. Any change may cause the mom to spend several hours putting the house back in order, neglecting the gerbil pups.
When breeding gerbils, I check on the babies two or three times a day from day one, but try to leave raising the litter to the mom and dad without interfering. Female and male gerbils are usually wonderful parents. Sometimes in the first couple of days a pup will get separated from the nest. Put the pup back into the nest, but make sure to wash your hands first (or cover your hand with a plastic baggie).
The First Few Weeks
Before I handle the pups, I give the parents just a bit of cardboard to distract them and keep them busy for a few minutes. Giving them a snack works just as well.
I start taking the babies out of the tank starting when they get a light coat of fuzz – at about day 5-7. Be careful! Even at this age gerbil babies crawl fast, and being blind they will crawl, wiggle, and flip right out of your hand which could result in severe head injury. Always take gerbil pups out of the tank completely enclosed in two hands and hold them directly on top of a pillow or blanket.
At this age, I only take the babies out once a day and for just a few minutes. I let them get accustomed to the smell and feel of human hands. After exploring you for a bit, and perhaps trying to nurse on your fingers, they will pile up in your two cupped hands and take a nap.
At 7-10 days you should be able to sex the gerbils using the “nipple method”. Only female gerbils have nipples and these appear as dents on the armpits, center/side of the belly, and upper thighs. At this point write down the colors and genders of your litter. This will aid you greatly in sexing the gerbils when you place them at about six weeks.
From 10-20 days the babies will be nicely furred and you should be able to determine their colors. See the AGS Color Strips for help doing so. At this age the gerbil babies will become very comfortable in your hands, they may sit up and wash their faces, they are likely to try crawling up your sleeve. You can take out the babies one or two times a day for several minutes. You should still be holding the babies over a pillow or blanket – as the chances are good that they will crawl off your hands. You may want to split the litter in half and take out only 2-3 pups at a time, since they are getting more mobile now.
At about 17-21 days your babies will open their eyes. It may take a few days for all the pups in the litter to open both eyes. If one or more eyes remain closed you can try rubbing the eye very softly with a warm damp cloth.
Be very careful the day the eyes open and the few days after the eyes open. Gerbil pups that formally were calm and relaxed in your hands become jittery and are likely to take off like a shot across the room. The world is bright and confusing and baby gerbils are nervous as they figure out vision. They no longer recognize you – you are a looming giant rather than the familiar warm soft pair of cupped hands and sleeve tunnel.
It is important that you continue to take out the gerbil pups at this stage of development. Take them out a few times a day – carefully! Take the babies out one at a time for only a minute or two and keep them cupped and completely enclosed in two hands, so that they cannot take off.
After just a few days, the gerbils pups, now about 24 days old, are back to their old friendly selves. At this point they normally are calm and relaxed and you shouldn’t have to worry about them falling or leaping off of your hands. Try handling them when they are most active, in the early evening. Rest your hand in the tank and when a pup climbs on lift it up slowly. If the pup jumps off lower it slowly. When you take the pup out, give him a minute or two of fun out time, then put him back. Soon you should have a line of pups climbing onto your hand, up your arm, and sitting on your shoulders. If your parent gerbils already do this, the pups will follow them right up your arm.
Weaning and Respiratory Infection
At about three weeks old the babies will start to nibble at food. They still require their mother’s milk until almost five weeks old. Weaning is about a two week gradual process. You can feed the pups weaning food, such as peeled sunflower seeds, roasted peanut bits, Cheerios or Cornflakes, oat meal oats (uncooked), and soft seeds such as canary seeds, in addition to their regular food. There is nothing cuter than a three week old pup with a giant Cheerio the size of a donut between his paws. Make sure that the water bottle is positioned low enough to the ground that the babies can reach it. You may want to spray the side of the tank near the water bottle with drops of water to help teach the babies to drink from the water bottle.
From three to five weeks I start introducing some cardboard into the tanks. Toilet tissue rolls or half paper towel tubes and small light boxes. Note that a heavy box or a large box filled with litter can crush and suffocate a pup who crawls underneath. Remove the bottom of the boxes or use boxes that will be gnawed up quickly.
Sometimes a pup may have trouble weaning or may during weaning experience respiratory infection. It is important that you aggressively treat the problem right away. Signs of respiratory infection are clicking (like the click of your tongue to the roof of your mouth), heavy breathing (see sides moving in and out), puffed fur, glazed eyes, scrawny tail, loss of weight, falling behind in growth from the rest of the litter.
My breeding emergency kit consists of three things: 1) powered kitten replacement milk and infant medicine dispenser or eye dropper; 2) A clamp lamp with 40 watt grow bulb, and thermometer; and 3) Ornyacycline (brand name for tetracycline) which is sold in pet stores in the bird section. Treat respiratory infection by warming one corner of the tank to no higher than 85 degrees F, kitten replacement milk feedings three times a day and Ornacycline (use the dosage for a small bird) in the water bottle with drops placed from your finger directly onto the pups lips three times a day. Do not mix the milk and the medicated water as the milk will lessen the effectiveness of the medicine.
If a pup starts out as a runt or is losing ground, supplement feed with kitten milk replacement. It is difficult to supplement feed before the pup is two- three weeks old. Make sure to wipe off the excess milk with a warm damp paper towel; it dries like cement.
Separating and Placing the Pups
Usually when the pups are about five weeks old, a new litter will arrive. (Though it may arrive anytime from 4-8 weeks after the first litter). You may want to remove some or all pups to their own tank when the mother gerbil looks very heavy with the next litter. Most mother gerbils don’t mind having the older litter in the tank with the younger one, but on occasion a mother gerbil feels stressed or threatened by the older pups and may attempt to drive them away. Since there is nowhere for the babies to go (and most babies run right back to mom for security), you need to remove the older pups right away if this should happen. You can probably leave one or two with the mother.
I recommend waiting until six weeks to place the pups. The babies will be bigger and stronger then, have had a little time to adjust away from the parents, and are easier to sex. At about four weeks boy and girl gerbils look identical, but at five to six weeks, the testicles on the male gerbils will become apparent.
I always ask anyone who handles the pups to wash their hands first. When you place the pups, give their new owners care information (such as the AGS pamphlet) and some of the weaning mixed with the adult gerbil food. Double check the gender of the pups right before you place them. You may want to ask the person to bring in their gerbil housing setup to make sure it is complete and everything is safe for the new babies.
It’s very important to develop a good record system. You can keep them in a notebook, or in a database on your computer.
- Each Gerbils – their name, AGS registered number, date of birth, parents, color, genetics, breeding or non-breeding, who their cage mate or mate is, date of death if applicable, and cause.
- Each Pairs – their names, AGS registration number, # of litters, the number of pups in each litter, date of birth, colors, gestation period, survival rate.
- Every Litter – Date of birth, parents, color, genetics, health, date of death if applicable, and cause.
- Adopters – their name, address, phone #, email address (where applicable), what pup(s) they have, and any comments (like “they have a website”).
- Pedigrees – keep a copy of the pedigree for each gerbil.
The Golden Rules of Gerbil Breeding
Breeding gerbils reminds me of the movie “Gremlins” – there are few hard-and-fast rules. If you follow these all is well, but if not – Big Trouble. In summary:
- The most important factor to success is the selection of your breeding pair
- Feed a high quality gerbil food (15% protein) and provide water at all times
- Create a low stress environment for them that is conducive to breeding
- Never breed with more than one adult female in the tank
- Keep the breeding tank very simple
- Corncob is the safest bedding when breeding
- After the pups are born do not to change anything about the environment
- Leave the dad (or an older daughter) in with mom to raise the babies
- Take blind gerbil pups out of the tank completely enclosed in two hands
- Hold blind gerbil pups directly on top of a pillow or blanket
- When pups first open their eyes they are very jittery – be careful with them
- Immediately treat respiratory infection or slowed growth during weaning
- Enjoy the babies – take them out for short positive sessions throughout puphood