WRITTEN BY DONNA ANASTASI | EDITED BY JENNIFER PARLATI
Mongolian Gerbils, Meriones unguiculatus, are small mammals that belong to the rodent family. Their natural habitats originate in the arid desert regions of Mongolia and Northern China. In 1954, the American researcher Victor Schwentker introduced gerbils to the USA and popularized them as pets. Today they’re considered an exotic small pet with a reputation for being docile and social.
It’s easy to distinguish a gerbil from other rodents by its uniquely furred tail which ends in a bushy tuft. Ordinarily smaller than their rat cousins, gerbils can grow up to 12 inches long from their nose to the tip of their tail. As omnivores their varied diet affords them a healthy average weight of 2-4 ounces (60-120 grams). The standard lifespan of a gerbil ranges between 2-5 years, although some live to a ripe old age of 6.
Hardy and built to survive in their native terrain, a gerbil’s light brown topcoat allows them to blend into the surrounding sand and brush. This effective camouflage hides them from snakes and birds of prey in particular. Their white belly blocks sunlight reflected by the desert sand to prevent overheating. In the domesticated setting, however, clever breeding has opened up over 40 different colors and spotting variations that gerbils can have.
Known for being incredibly friendly and social, gerbils rarely nip and get quite excited about coming out for “play time”. Their keen intelligence also allows them to learn from humans. They can sit calmly on a shoulder, use a litter box or even run effortlessly through an obstacle course. The antics and family interactions they share can entertain for hours.
Gerbils need only a minimum of care to ensure their continued health and happiness. Housing requirements, while taking up little space, encourage caregivers creative license to decorate with safe toys that stimulate gerbil minds. Moreover they’re low-maintenance, create very little odor, do not produce allergy symptoms for most people, and do not need frequent vet visits. They are the perfect pet for all ages.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Gerbils are beings just like us and deserve the same nurturing love that we do. So before adding these little creatures into your life, consider the privilege and responsibility that you’re about to undertake. Understanding their needs as well as your ability to provide for those needs is critical for your mutual benefit.
Always remember that happy and healthy gerbils are definitive signs of a great caregiver, so take some time to inform yourself about the choice you’re about to make.
What’s Your Budget?
While gerbils are a relatively inexpensive pet to own, every pet comes with expenses. Your start-up costs for suitable housing, bedding and food could cost you about $50-100 depending on what you choose. Refreshing of your gerbil’s tank every 2-3 weeks could cost you $2-4 dollars for bedding alone. A bag of good quality food will cost you $7-9 per month. And while gerbils don’t require regular veterinary care, you should probably expect that your gerbils may need at least 2-3 vet visits some time in their lives. Veterinary costs vary wildly, especially by region, so you might wish to call some vets in your area and get the cost for an “exotics” office visit. The prudent budget preparer will assume one problem-focused visit per year.
Where Will You Keep Them?
Deciding first where in your home your gerbils will live will be important when you make equipment decisions.Here are the factors you should consider:
- Temperature control. Gerbils will be comfortable at any temperatures at which you are comfortable. Hot is more dangerous to gerbils than cold, and more difficult to deal with, as two or more gerbils with deep bedding can make a cozy nest that will withstand very cool temperatures. However, your gerbils cannot stand to swelter all day while you are at work. If you can’t leave gerbils in an air-conditioned space, they may need to live in the coolest part of your home during the hottest part of the year. It’s also best to avoid drafty areas, strong direct sun, and spots directly under air ducts, so as to reduce dust blowing around.
- High visibility. Gerbils need to be in a place where they can be seen every day without fail. A lot can go wrong quickly: a leaky water bottle can soak bedding and leave wet gerbils shivering; gerbils may squabble; someone is lethargic and fluffed-up and needs immediate veterinary attention. Don’t abandon your gerbils in a seldom-used “family room”. Out of sight, out of mind is a disaster for small animals that can’t insist on your attention.
- Mess and equipment. Both come along with the territory. Choose a place where you can store extra food, bedding, cardboard tubes and boxes, and where a few spilled seeds and a bit of dust won’t bother anyone.
- Safe to play. Particularly if you have young children who are more likely to let a gerbil loose accidentally, choose a place without too much furniture, baseboards and piles of stuff behind which gerbils can quickly hide.
- Noise at night. Pet gerbils, unlike their wild cousins, do not feel obligated to conform to any specific schedule. They will most likely respond to family routines and be awake and active when they anticipate some fun. When they aren’t expecting company, they may be busy with gerbilly stuff or sleeping. When asked if gerbils are nocturnal, diurnal or crepuscular (dawn-and-dusk active), I answer that gerbils’ schedule is best compared to that of your average college student. So, expect several hours of scurrying and wheel running from your gerbils at night, although not all night. If you’d planned on a bedroom location for gerbils, have a Plan B ready in case the human sleeper finds the noise too disturbing. (A Silent Spinner wheel can help here, but there are other noises too.)
- Supervision of children. If you have young children, place gerbils where they and their friends can be adequately supervised when handling gerbils in order to avoid tragedy.
- Footprint. The width, depth and height of the space you’ve found for your gerbils will dictate your housing options. Measure before you head to the store.
Gerbils for Children
Remember that adopting any pet means making a long-term commitment. For gerbils, that commitment can be as long as four to five years, although 2-½ to 3-½ is the average gerbil’s lifespan. If you are buying gerbils for your 13 year old son, consider that he may be getting his driver’s license within these gerbils’ lifespan! Might that change the amount of time and interest he has in his elderly pets? Who will be their caretaker then?
If you are buying gerbils for a child make sure she understands the responsibility that she is taking on. Many parents want children to learn responsibility by owning a pet, but since children often tire quickly of pets, the responsibility you teach may be more through example than by your child’s prolonged attention. Regardless of how long your child is enamored of your gerbils, you, as the adult, will have the obligation to monitor and support the child and if necessary, take over the job, in order to ensure that the gerbil will be well taken care of.
Gerbils Need Buddies
Gerbils are highly social and do not like being alone at all, unlike the solitary Syrian hamster. If you’re getting gerbils you must get at least two. Lone gerbils have been proven to live shorter, less healthy lives, and are often overweight and lethargic. They also tend to be timid, harder to tame, and less friendly overall. Even if you are home all day, and playing with them constantly, this does not make up for the fact that they must sleep alone, eat alone, and have no one to groom them. So companionship is essential.
Both females and males will get along happily with a companion of the same sex, especially if they are siblings or kept together from the age of six to eight weeks old. People do keep larger groups of gerbils (3 or more). However, larger groups do tend to be less stable and have a higher risk of declanning. For the first-time gerbil owner the easiest grouping is a pair of gerbils.
Even though gerbils are social, this does not mean you can take any two gerbils you find and put them together! Gerbils need to be introduced carefully, or they will fight, with one ending up badly injured or even killed. Introducing gerbils requires special knowledge and equipment. For your first gerbils, simply find a healthy, same-sex pair from a reliable source and enjoy them.
You can learn more about the colors available from the Color Strips. The most basic colors are black, lilac, argente and agouti. These colors should be available widely, no matter where you live. Colorpoints (burmese, siamese, dark-tailed white) and the “fox” colors (red fox, yellow fox, nutmeg and dark-eyed honey) are a bit less common but still available in many places. The gray colors (gray agouti, silver nutmeg, polar fox) are much less common, and colors newly introduced to North America like blue and dilute agouti are probably impossible to find unless you locate a breeder who specializes in them.
No matter what colors you prefer, it’s best to go into your search with an open mind. The health, personality and friendliness of the gerbils you choose will be far more important in the long run than their color. The one thing that you’ll probably be grateful for later is choosing gerbils different enough to tell apart.
People often ask “is there a difference between males and females”? There are, of course, a number of differences – obvious ones like size (males are larger) and less obvious ones like what illnesses are most common in old age. But from the perspective of how gerbils relate to their humans, there is really no difference between males and females. This is another place where having an open mind might give you the best range of choices. It’s also worth noting that many chain pet stores now carry only one gender or the other, in hopes of minimizing accidental litters.
CHOOSING YOUR GERBILS
No matter where you get your gerbils, you’ll want to be able to judge two things: its overall health, and whether or not you’re getting two of the same gender.
Look for these traits to find a healthy, well-cared-for gerbil:
- bright, fully-opened eyes: half-open, tired looking eyes can mean an animal is sick or old; red (mucus) staining around its eyes can be a sign of allergy or illness; if you see a red “third eyelid” or bump in the front part of the eye, the eye may be infected.
- clean, smooth (not greasy-looking) fur: a healthy happy gerbil spends a lot of time grooming and should have a healthy coat. A very greasy coat may mean the gerbils are being kept on incorrect or dirty bedding, are eating a low-quality diet, or perhaps are just a bit hot and humid and need a dust bath. A puffed-up appearance is a warning sign of ill health.
- active and curious: even if you awaken them from a nap, healthy gerbils should rise readily and be interested in your arrival.
- tractable and willing to be held: gerbils should be willing to let you pick them up but once in hand, expect a lot of action! A healthy gerbil will want to climb around on you, but won’t nip or try to bolt away from you in terror. A lack of good social skills suggests they were not handled enough at the crucial junctures during their upbringing.
If you are getting gerbils from a breeder, you can be confident you’re getting a same-sexed pair. If you are going to a pet store, be on notice that pet store employees rarely know how to sex animals and you must be prepared to do this yourself, even if in a rudimentary fashion. Here’s an easy test: you and the pet store clerk should each flip one gerbil over in your hand. If they look the same “down there”, you’re okay. If they look different – choose a different pair.
DO YOU WANT TO BREED GERBILS?
If you are considering breeding gerbils, you are taking on a lot of responsibility. You’ll want to read all of this handbook carefully, especially the sections on split cage introductions and the entire section on breeding. Most importantly, you’ll need to answer the question of why you want to breed gerbils. No one should begin breeding any sort of animal without a clear understand of his or her goals.
You must also be clear about the economics of raising gerbils. You will have to pay for new equipment, extra food and bedding, and vet visits. Your will need to devote a lot of your time to tame your pups so they will make good pets. You will need to find a lot of new homes – a pair of gerbils having medium-sized litters can produce forty pups per year. Can your market support that? And if you have any illusions that you will make money breeding gerbils, let’s be clear right now: no one makes money raising them! Between us, we’ve raised thousands of gerbils and we know: they are a hobby, not a business.
Photo Credits: Julie Hass