Gerbils are usually very healthy with few health problems. A safe and secure cage, proper diet, and careful handling help ensure a pet’s safety and well being. Even with a wonderful home and excellent diet, a gerbil may still become ill or injured. Signs that your gerbil may be ill include lethargy, loss of appetite, rapid weight loss or gain, and aggression. If illness or injury does occur, contacting your veterinarian is always recommended. Some of the more common health concerns are listed below.
Most gerbils are born healthy, but when a pup has a condition that is present from birth, it is called a congenital disorder. Congenital disorders can be inherited or caused by environmental factors and their impact on a gerbil’s health and development can vary from mild to severe. A gerbil with a congenital disorder may experience a disability or health problems throughout life.
Epilepsy is found in 20-50% of all gerbils. It is believed that this is an inherited wild trait that acts as a defense mechanism to protect the gerbil when being hunted, causing it to ‘play dead’. See Seizures for more information.
Kinked Tail or Wrist
These are bends in the tail or wrist of a gerbil. They are genetic defects and usually have no effect on your pet’s quality of life. Gerbils with kinks in their limbs should not breed. Their offspring are highly likely to be born with kinks in their limbs as well.
Symptoms: First noticeable as a small hard lump the tumor will continue to grow if not treated. Scent gland tumors will starts off as a small rough and scabby spot on the scent gland located on the gerbil’s stomach. Often it is sore and can irritate the gerbil, and many gerbils attempt to bite it off as a result. It can bleed excessively if the gerbil attempts to remove it and may lead to bacterial infection. Ovarian cysts are confined to older female gerbils and will make them appear pregnant with a swollen abdomen or look like there is a bulge on one side. Litter size in breeding females will drop dramatically.
Causes: Neoplasia is the process of abnormal and uncontrolled cellular growth, which in turn is then termed a cyst or a tumor. The tumor can be both slow or fast growing, and is often benign (”Adenoma”) but malignant tumors are not unknown (”Adenocarcinoma”).
At-Risk Groups: Tumors occur most often in elderly gerbils. Scent gland tumors occur most often in males and only occasionally in females. Older female gerbils are prone to ovarian type tumors.
Treatment: Take you gerbil to an experience small animal veterinarian. If left unchecked it could have the potential to invade locally or metastasize to other regions such as the lung or lymph nodes. For these reasons it is in the gerbils best interests to have the entire gland removed at the earliest possible opportunity. Scent gland tumors are usually operable, and there is a high likelihood of a full recovery. Ovarian cysts can become very large but are usually benign and can be ignored. In rare cases problems can arise where the cyst presses against a nerve or organ and stops it working properly. Surgery to remove the affected ovary is a major procedure so a veterinarian should be consulted to discuss all options.
Symptoms: Diarrhea is characterized by loose, runny and/or discolored stools. Additional symptoms such as lethargy, rumpled coat, weight loss, and refusing to eat or drink are probably signs of a bacterial or viral infection. Gerbils displaying these symptoms should be taken promptly to a vet for diagnosis.
Causes: Diarrhea is not a disease, rather a symptom of a larger issue affecting the gerbil. Diarrhea can be caused by too much wet food in the gerbil’s diet. This problem is easily solved by feeding less fruits and vegetables. However, diarrhea is also a common symptom of more serious viral and bacterial infections, the most common being:
* Tyzzer’s Disease
* E. coli infection
* Listeria infection
Tyzzer’s Disease does not affect humans, but Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria are dangerous to humans and can be fatal to the young, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.
At-Risk Groups: Diarrhea is usually seen in pups that have just been weaned. They are no longer relying on the antibodies in their mother’s milk, so their immune systems are more vulnerable to attack from diarrhea-causing diseases like E. coli.
Treatment: If diarrhea is the only symptom present, stop feeding wet food. If the diarrhea does not clear up or gets worse, or other symptoms appear, take the affected gerbil(s) to a vet for proper diagnosis. He or she will probably prescribe oral antibiotics. As always, follow the vet’s instructions carefully, and complete the full course of antibiotics.
Isolate the “sick” tank(s) from the “healthy” tanks; if the sick gerbils are suffering from a contagious disease, it has probably already spread to their tankmates, so do not split up clanned gerbils. Thoroughly clean everything that comes into contact with a sick gerbil, including your hands. The infections that cause serious diarrhea are easily spread, so hygiene is key. Some, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria infections, can be passed on to humans as well.
Symptoms: Symptoms may not be apparent in the early stages. Your gerbil may become irritable, lethargic, have puffy eyes, rough fur, and half closed or dull eyes. They may feel cool to the touch. Urine will be very concentrated and have a noticeable odor.
Causes: Dehydration is not a disease, rather a symptom of a larger issue affecting the gerbil. It may be as simple as a cracked or clogged water bottle. In more serious cases it can be caused by hyperthermia where the gerbil becomes overheated. Gerbils risk dehydration when suffering from prolonged episodes of diahrrea.
At-Risk Groups: Any gerbil that becomes overheated or ill.
Prevention: Check the water bottle everyday to ensure there are no cracks or clogs. Keep tanks out of direct sunlight so your gerbil won’t overheat. A fan will help prevent pockets of warm air from developing in the hotter parts of the room. Since hot air rises, even moving tanks to a lower shelf or the floor can make a difference. When you know it will be warm, you can keep large rocks, tiles, or ceramic pieces in the freezer, then put them in the gerbils’ tanks so they can lie on them to cool off. Wash your hands before (and after) handling your gerbil to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like Salmonella and E. coli.
Treatment: Even if your gerbil is dehydrated from diahrrea keeping fluids and electrolytes up are vital. Smart Water, Water with Oasis Vitadrops, Kitten Replacement Milk, and Pedialyte are good choices. Supplying liquids to your pet with an eyedropper or small syringe may be required. Younger gerbils that are too small for syringes can use q-tips instead.
Vitamin B Deficiency
Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus (LCMV)
Symptoms: As of January 2017 there have been no official reports of gerbils contracting LCMV. However that does not mean it is impossible. Symptoms in gerbils could include inactivity, loss of appetite, and a rough coat. As the disease progresses, the gerbil might theoretically experience weight loss, hunched posture, inflammation around the eyes, and eventually death. Alternatively some gerbils could not show any symptoms at all. Infected baby gerbils that are still nursing or weaning could develop brain damage, leading to permanent abnormalities of movement, coordination, vision and behavior. This disease ”is” transmittable to humans. Onset of symptoms typically occurs between one or two weeks after exposure to the virus. People can experience LCMV as a brief, flu-like illness which can progress to more serious meningitis, with attendant risks of neurological damage. LCMV is also dangerous to fetuses, particularly during the first two trimesters.
Causes: Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus (LCMV) is a dangerous disease that can be transmitted to humans through contact with the saliva, feces and urine of wild rodents. LCMV is most commonly spread naturally by the common house mouse. Once infected, these mice can become chronically infected by maintaining virus in their blood or persistently shedding virus in their urine. Chronically infected female mice usually transmit infection to their offspring. Other modes of mouse-to-mouse transmission include nasal secretions, milk from infected dams, bites, and during social grooming within mouse communities. Airborne transmission also occurs. The virus seems to be relatively resistant to drying and therefore humans can become infected by inhaling infectious aerosolized particles of rodent urine, feces, or saliva, by ingesting food contaminated with virus, by contamination of mucous membranes with infected body fluids, or by directly exposing cuts or other open wounds to virus-infected blood.
At-Risk Groups: Other types of rodents, such as hamsters, are not the natural reservoirs but can become infected with LCMV from wild mice at the breeder, in the pet store, or home environment. Humans are more likely to contract LCMV from house mice, but infections from pet rodents have also been reported. Gerbils that have been exposed to or housed with any wild rodent risk contracting LCMV; and baby gerbils could suffer permanent disability or death. Humans with depressed immune systems are particularly at risk to the effects of LCMV. Among otherwise healthy persons, LCMV has less than a 1% mortality rate.
Treatment: Immunosuppressive therapy has been effective in halting the disease for laboratory animals but treatment for household pets will be determined by a veterinarian based on severity. In humans, aseptic meningitis, encephalitis, or meningoencephalitis requires hospitalization and supportive treatment based on severity. Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as corticosteroids, may be considered under specific circumstances. Although studies have shown that ribavirin, a drug used to treat several other viral diseases, is effective against LCMV in vitro, there is no established evidence to support its routine use for treatment of LCMV in humans.
Symptoms: Episodes usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Seizures vary in intensity and duration, but can be grouped into two types.
Type 1: Mild
* gerbil lays low to the ground, ears back or twitching
* if picked up, the gerbil will be limp
* may drool slightly at the mouth
Type 2: Severe
* violent convulsions
* rarely more than 30 seconds in duration
* typically followed by a long period of Type 1 seizure behavior
Causes: Seizures may occur when a gerbil becomes scared or frightened. Gerbils can be sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, people, or animals. Some gerbils are more prone to seizures, possibly because of a genetic predisposition. 20-50% of all gerbils have epilepsy. Seizures are generally not life threatening or dangerous.
At-Risk Groups: Seizures are common in younger gerbils and eventually grow out of them. Red-eyed gerbils tend to have shorter, less severe episodes.
Treatment: Most seizures are harmless, and the gerbil will recover quickly. Simply put the gerbil back into its home, and place the tank in a quiet, dark area with minimal disturbances.
Rarely, the fits will be severe enough to cause serious harm. If the gerbil stays in a Type 1 seizure for an excessive length of time, Type 2 movements continue for over a minute, or there are repeated seizures without a recovery period between episodes, there is probably an underlying cause such as a brain tumor. There is little you can do aside from keeping the gerbil in a low-stress environment as much as possible.
It can be distressing for owners to witness these fits, however provided you follow the above instructions your gerbil will recover fully. There have been cases recorded where the gerbil has unfortunately died, however these are extremely rare and may have been secondary to some other ailment such as a brain tumor.
The fits usually become less frequent as the gerbil ages; most gerbils grow out of the tendency towards them. It is unusual for adult gerbils to develop the tendency if they did not have fits when young.
If you are aiming to breed gerbils then it is not advised to breed from affected individuals as it can be passed down from generation to generation.
Symptoms: Weakness, paralysis on one side, or difficulty walking can be signs of a stroke.
Causes: A stroke is what happens when brain tissue dies. There are two main causes of stroke.
In a ”hemorrhagic” stroke, brain tissue is killed by excess bleeding in the brain, due to trauma or a burst blood vessel.
In an ”ischemic” stroke, brain tissue dies because it has been deprived of oxygen. Usually this is because a blood clot or cholesterol plaque is blocking an artery, preventing oxygen-rich blood from flowing to the brain.
At-Risk Groups: Like humans, strokes are most common in older gerbils. Young gerbils with other health problems may experience them as well.
Treatment: Keep the gerbil warm and as comfortable as possible. Make sure it can eat and drink, until it has recovered enough to feed itself. In some cases another stroke follows fairly soon after and the gerbil may unfortunately die. Recovery is possible though and in some cases and the gerbil may be left with little or no disability.
Broken or Overgrown Teeth
Symptoms: Rapid weight loss is usually the first sign of broken or overgrown teeth. The gerbil is unable to eat properly.
Causes: The teeth will become too long if the gerbil is not given adequate gnawing material. If one of the front teeth is broken, the opposite tooth can grow too long without the missing one to grind against. Elderly gerbils may not gnaw as much, causing their teeth to grow too long.
At-Risk Groups: Overgrown teeth occur most often in older gerbils who tend to gnaw less as they age.
Treatment: Like all rodents, gerbil teeth grow constantly, so it is important to provide safe gnawing material to keep teeth at a manageable length. Check their teeth regularly to catch any problems before their ability to eat is affected. If their teeth do become too long, a veterinarian or experienced breeder will be able to trim them. Gerbils with misaligned teeth or a missing tooth may need to have their teeth trimmed regularly. If a gerbil’s teeth are broken, serve them baby food and kitten replacement milk until their teeth regrow properly.
Ear Infection / Head Tilt
Symptoms: The gerbil holds their head at an unusual angle and their balance may be off. They may walk in circles going only one direction.
Causes: An ”aural cholesteatoma” is a cyst in the middle ear, most common in elderly gerbils. Poor Eustachian tube function, resulting from allergies or respiratory infection, may cause these cysts to form. The cyst’s growth can harm the eardrum and bones of the middle ear, and often causes chronic secondary infections.
At-Risk Groups: Cholesteatomata are more common in elderly gerbils.
Treatment: A chronic secondary infection can be treated with an anti-inflammatory injection from your vet, followed by a course of antibiotics. Often, a reduced head tilt will remain after treatment; the gerbil will quickly adapt to this. Unfortunately, the cyst itself is un-treatable, so the chronic phase may reoccur.
Symptoms: The gerbil’s nose looks red and sore, and there is usually hair loss on the irritated area. The gerbil’s mucus is naturally red and can be confused with blood.
Causes: Sore noses are fairly common, and are most often caused by an allergic reaction to the gerbil’s bedding. Gerbils are highly allergic to the aromatic oils in cedar shavings and some pine shavings. Occasionally a gerbil may be allergic to aspen or Timothy Hay.
Gerbils kept in cages often get sore noses from constantly chewing at the bars. The repetitive action rubs the fur off the gerbil’s nose and irritates the skin beneath.
Sore noses can also be caused by Staphylococci bacilli, a bacterium which causes sore throats in human hosts.
At-Risk Groups: Gerbils that are kept in cages, on cedar or pine bedding, or unsanitary conditions are more likely to develop sore noses.
Treatment: If the affected gerbil lives in a cage, switch to a tank. If you are using wood shavings, switch to corncob or a paper based bedding. If the irritation persists, or a secondary infection sets in, go to your vet. They will probably prescribe a topical antibiotic to be applied to the affected area.
Symptoms: Sick gerbils are lethargic, with a rumpled coat and labored breathing. There is a characteristic “clicking” sound as the gerbil breathes, caused by fluid in the respiratory tract.
Causes: There are several agents which can cause a respiratory infection: viruses, bacteria, and environmental irritants (the most common being cedar shavings and some pine shavings).
At-Risk Groups: The gerbils most susceptible to respiratory infections are the young, the elderly, and those under stress.
Treatment: If your gerbil has a respiratory infection, your vet can prescribe the correct dosage of antibiotics. Enrofloxacin (Baytril), Trimethoprim Sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra, Cotrim), and Tetracycline derivatives like Chlortetracycline (Panmycin, Ornacycline) and Oxytetracycline (Terramycin), are the most commonly prescribed medications. As always, carefully follow any and all instructions, and complete the full course of antibiotics. Supplemental feeding with Kitten Replacement Milk can help keep up the strength of weaning pups with respiratory infection.
Chlortetracycline can be purchased over-the-counter, but use without a prescription is NOT recommended. Dosages are difficult to calibrate, and dissolving tetracycline in the water bottle will not deliver antibiotics effectively. There is no way to regulate the timing or dosage of medicine. Tetracycline breaks down in sunlight, so medicated water will quickly become useless in a transparent water bottle. Tetracycline also becomes less effective when taken with food or milk replacement.
Parasites & Poison
Symptoms: Small black or red dot sized arachnids that cover the undercoat of the infected gerbil, especially between toes, armpits and base of tail. The habitat will also likely be infested, particularly where the gerbils sleep and eliminate waste. Excessive scratching and grooming may indicate a mite problem. Gerbils with serious cases of mites may show signs of lethargy from infection or anemia.
Causes: Contaminated bedding, food and Timothy Hay originating from the pet store or warehouse where the goods were stored. Mites are indigenous to certain U.S. States and can enter the home via windows, doorways and chimney flues looking for shelter from extreme temperatures.
At-Risk Groups: All gerbils are at risk to mite infestation. However, pups and elderly gerbils with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible to infections and anemia from prolonged exposure.
Prevention: Freeze bedding, food and Timothy Hay for a minimum of 24 hours to kill any mites or other insects that may have contaminated the contents. Clean aquarium tanks at least monthly and check used bedding often for any signs of mites. Observe gerbil behavior and take note of any abnormal excessive scratching or grooming.
Treatment: To check for mites take a few sheets of unscented white toilet tissue and swaddle your gerbil in it leaving their head out. Wait for a minute or two then open the wrapping and inspect it closely and carefully for either dust specks or tiny red blobs. If you do discover that your gerbils do have mites you will need to check a pet store or your vets office for hamster & gerbil mite and flea spray; Pyrenthin spray at 0.66% concentration.
First thoroughly clean the tank/cage with bleach and soap, and anything that is going back into the tank. Next, spray the tank inside and out and everything going into it. (Spray the outside of the water bottle.) When you put in the fresh bedding give it a good squirt. Spray down the old bedding and put it in a garbage bag. Seal it and spray the outside of the bag well. Put it in a garbage can with a secure lid.
Spray the gerbils, and make sure you wet them from their ears to their tail. Now spray your hands, getting them wet, and carefully work the medicated spray into the fur of their heads. Gently massage your gerbil working the spray all the way down to the skin. Repeat the tissue test daily, and spray every time you find more crawlies. You may need to follow all of the steps listed above several time, before you can successfully get rid of the infestation.
Symptoms: As the gerbils are affected by the heat, they will lie stretched out to allow the most body heat to escape, often pushing bedding out of the way in order to rest directly against the cooler glass bottom. They may also begin panting. In severe cases, the gerbils will be wet around the mouth, and may lose consciousness. If the gerbil’s temperature is not lowered soon it will die.
Causes: Even though gerbils are from a rather extreme climate, they avoid the worst temperatures by burrowing underground. The burrow temperature varies much less than the above ground temperature. So although they are adapted to extreme temperatures, gerbils can suffer from heatstroke, particularly if they are left in direct sunlight and areas with poor ventilation.
Above 75°F (24°C), gerbils will become less active and lie spread out when at rest. Even if the temperature in most of your house is at a safe level, strong sunlight can make a room much hotter than the outside temperature, and a poorly ventilated room can develop pockets of higher temperature in the still air.
At-Risk Groups: Gerbils whose tanks are in direct sunlight, in an outbuilding with no cooling system, or in a room with too little air circulation may be at risk of becoming overheated.
Prevention: Make sure to keep tanks out of direct sunlight. A fan will help prevent pockets of warm air from developing in the hotter parts of the room. Since hot air rises, even moving tanks to a lower shelf or the floor can make a difference. When you know it will be warm, you can keep large rocks, tiles, or ceramic pieces in the freezer, then put them in the gerbils’ tanks so they can lie on them to cool off.
Treatment: In mild cases, moving the tank to a cooler area, and providing a cool surface to lie on should do the trick. In more severe cases, the most important thing to do is lower the gerbil’s body temperature as quickly as possible, or it will die. Do this by bathing the gerbil in cool, but not freezing, water. You also need to try to get the gerbil to drink some fluids. Again, not freezing cold; if the bath or fluids are too cold, the shock of the difference in temperature can kill the gerbil. You need to get the gerbil to a vet as soon as possible; if the gerbil is not strong enough to drink, he may need fluids injected subcutaneously.
Symptoms: Affected gerbils will be cold to the touch, and usually huddled together with their tank-mates for warmth. A “torpid” gerbil will not respond when touched.
Causes: A gerbil may develop hypothermia when exposed to very low temperatures for too long. The figure most often quoted as the lowest safe temperature is 10°C (50°F). Keep in mind, though, that a wet gerbil will rapidly lose heat regardless of the weather, without its fur for insulation.
At-Risk Groups: Any gerbil left in a place exposed to severe low temperatures may develop hypothermia. Remember that warm air rises, so a basement or cellar will be colder than the upper floors of a house.
Treatment: A gerbil with hypothermia needs its body temperature gradually raised. You can use a heating pad, a hot water bottle, or even your own body heat to revive a torpid gerbil. Don’t give up if nothing seems to be happening; it can take an hour or more before the gerbil starts moving. Once the gerbil is moving again, offer fluids, and make sure it is kept comfortable. It is also a good idea to take the affected gerbil(s) to a vet, to make sure they are okay.
The Gerbil Care Handbook may not be copied, in whole or part, without prior written permission from the American Gerbil Society.
Cross Reference Sources:
Petgerbils.org – Health & Illness <http://petgerbils.org/health-illness>
Gerbil Proboard Forum / Shooting Star – Common Gerbil Ailments <http://gerbilforum.proboards.com/thread/11598/common-gerbil-ailments>
Omlet.org – Illness <https://www.omlet.us/guide/gerbils/gerbil_health/illness>
Merck Veterinary Manual – Gerbils <http://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/rodents/gerbils>
eGerbil – Neoplasia in Gerbils <http://www.egerbil.com/neoplasia.html>
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis (LCM) <https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/lcm/index.html>
Shawsheen River Gerbils – Gerbils and Your Health <http://www.hannas.com/srg_files/Gerbils_and_Health.html>
Image Sources: rodentzone.com, animaltalk.co.za, gerbilforum.proboards.com