Gerbils are socially complex creatures and communicate using both verbal and body language, just as humans do. Have you ever wondered what your gerbil might be thinking or feeling? This guide will reveal the meanings behind those behaviors.
Gerbil Lingo: “That was the last straw!”
This term is used to describe two gerbils fighting in a tight-knit ball. This is very serious and can lead to injury or even death. If you see gerbils engaging in this aggressive behavior you must separate them immediately. Use thick gardening gloves to avoid being bitten by accident. They should not be reintroduced unless using the Split-Cage Method, but be prepared to make other accommodations for your gerbils if they cannot reconcile.
Gerbil Lingo: “I’m the king of the hill.”
Gerbils box by standing on their hind legs and push at one another with their hands. This is a dominance behavior and allows gerbils to sort out hierarchy without fighting or injury. Think of it as the equivalence of a pillow fight to settle a dispute. Males do it most often but females can also display this behavior. In young pups, this is usually just for play and to establish a pecking order. It’s always good to let gerbils box. Do not intervene unless the gerbils begin to seriously fight or chase.
Gerbil Lingo: “I’m Indiana Jones, and the Sunflower Grail is on the other side of this tank!”
In the wild gerbils are born and raised in a burrow environment. Without burrows, gerbils develop a stereotypical digging behavior. This is observed when they continuously dig aimlessly in the corners of their tank, often at incredible speed. Gerbils can spend many hours in this fruitless endeavor. To remedy this action try raising your gerbils in a more natural environment, a burrow system has been shown to greatly reduce the compulsion to burrow. Pups that are raised in a burrow environment usually won’t adopt this behavior.
Gerbil Lingo: “Come at me, bro!” – or – “I love you, but I’m going to play hard to get.”
There are two types of chasing: continuous chasing and start / stop chasing. Continuous chasing is an aggressive action that can lead to balling. It occurs when a gerbil feels threatened by another. Gerbils should be removed when you see this. Keep in mind that chasing also occurs during mating. This is start / stop chasing. The amorous male will chase the female in a courtship before she presents herself and he mounts. The speed of this kind of chase is not as fast as aggressive chasing, so watch your gerbils to be certain.
Gerbil Lingo: “Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom!”
Like human babies, gerbil pups ‘cry’ when they need something as it’s their only form of communication at that age. This comes out in the form of a constant chirp when hungry, cold, hot, annoyed or in need of attention. When this happens with 5-8 pups all at once, it’s quite the chorus! In a less common situation, gerbil bonded pairs can also be heard chirping at one another during mating rituals. This may be a form of flirting.
Gerbil Lingo: “I like you a lot and I care about you. Let’s be friends!”
Like most social animal orders, grooming and cleaning one another is a staple form of communication and bonding. Mothers clean their pups to encourage blood circulation and respiration at birth. Males and females clean one another to re-affirm their bond as gerbils are monogamous and pair for life. In gerbil clans, gerbils will groom elder and more dominant gerbils as a sign of respect and submission. And in return, elder and dominant gerbils will return that grooming to show protection and care.
Gerbil Lingo: “I’m cleaning up after myself, and taking vitamins to stay healthy.”
While this might sound gross, this is actually a normal behavior. Most rodents eat their own feces and it’s common to see young gerbil pups adopting this practice. One main reason for this is an evolved survival instinct. Vitamin B12 is produced during food digestion in their intestinal tract. The bacteria that is needed to make B12 is absent in young gerbil pups intestines, so eating feces gives them the bacteria to enable them to make this important vitamin.
Gerbil Lingo: “To boldly go where no gerbil has gone before!”
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. Leaving treats in conspicuous places to lure your little friend back to safety usually proves successful. Luckily escapees are not likely to travel far from their home.
Gerbil Lingo: “OMG this is AMAZING. Thank you!”
When eating a tasty treat, gerbils are often caught winking one eye, and it seems to be an indicator of tasting something pleasant or even gratitude. It is that it can be a form of submissive behavior as well, and can be an indicator of submission to another gerbil. It is also used as a form of greeting.
Gerbil Lingo: “MINE!”
Whenever a gerbil finds a particularly tasty bit of food, it will run into a corner and make a sudden, sharp 90 degree turn. This seems to be an instinctive behavior meant to keep food away from the others. In tanks however, it can be amusing to watch as the gerbil usually does this right next to a fellow gerbil, who promptly attempts to steal the food away.
Gerbil Lingo: “I’ll just add this to my private stock for a midnight snack later.”
This instinct is natural for gerbils and echoes their wild instincts. Quite often you will find a hidden stash of their more preferred foods, which they have buried to eat at a later date. When giving gerbils fresh fruit and vegetables always give in small quantities. Avoid allowing them to bury or hoard fruit and vegetables as they rot quickly. Remove whatever they don’t eat at the first sitting.
Gerbil Lingo: “Commence deep meditative state with cardboard chewing!”
Like all rodents, gerbil teeth continuously grow. Gnawing is the gerbil’s way of preventing their teeth from becoming overgrown. It’s also a fun past-time for them, something akin to popping bubble wrap for us. Gnawing materials should be available at all times, cardboard, chew sticks, blocks of safe wood etc. are excellent for this job, although your gerbil will probably gnaw whatever is in the tank! Care should therefore be taken with plastic, which can cause problems if ingested. Older gerbils may not gnaw as much so you may need to clip the teeth of these gerbils if they do become overgrown, if you are not confident in doing this yourself your vet will be able to do it for you.
Gerbil Lingo: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…wait…what IS it?”
This is seen in pink or ruby eyed gerbils. Research has shown that there is a problem in the way information is transferred from the eyes to the brain in gerbils with pink and ruby eyes. The gerbils will sway their heads from side to side to make up for the distortion in their vision. This condition is benign; gerbils cope easily with this condition and live normal lives. It can be a little creepy to watch, but it’s completely normal.
Gerbil Lingo: “Whoa. Vertigo.”
This indicates that damage has occurred to the balance organs in the ear. This can be caused by an infection or by a cyst called a cholesteatoma. These cysts are not curable, but the chronic phase is very treatable, however they can often re-occur. Gerbils will adapt quickly to a slight head tilt and live relatively normal lives. If you notice this behavior it may be worth visiting your vet to check if it is an infection that can be treated, especially if the gerbil appears unwell in other areas, e.g. not eating properly.
Gerbil Lingo: “Hi! How are you? What’s your sign?”
Gerbils will often appear to do this when they first meet, although they have been observed doing this at other times too. It is thought that they transmit messages such as gender and dominance through chemicals present in their saliva. This is perfectly normal behavior and can be very cute to watch.
Gerbil Lingo: “Ooo, shiny! What is this?” – or – “I am sooo thirsty!”
This behavior indicates that a gerbil is thirsty or curious about the object it tastes. In the wild a gerbil would be able to access water from licking condensation forming on the walls of cooler parts of the burrow. This is very prevalent in young pups when they are weaning, and can be observed licking the sides of the tank; especially if they can’t reach the water bottle or have not worked out how to use it yet. Tasting and licking are also forms of stimuli that gerbils use to sense and learn about the world around them.
Gerbil Lingo: “This is mine, and this is mine, oh and so is this. You are mine, too!”
Gerbils have an oval-shaped scent gland on their abdomen that looks like a small patch of thick leather. They use this gland to leave their scent on objects and even other gerbils. This is a gerbil way of marking territory and saying “This is mine!” Mothers will skim across their pups in a similar fashion to strengthen the bond with her brood. In gerbil hierarchies a dominant gerbil will mark subordinate gerbils as their own. This is normal behavior but if you notice one gerbil constantly scent marking another gerbil it may be a sign of a dominance issue and could lead to fighting. So always keeps a close eye on the gerbils if you notice excessive scent marking.
Gerbil Lingo: “I am completely in love with you and think you’d make a great parent.” – or – “I’m the boss!”
This is the act of mating between two gerbils in love. Gerbils bond monogamously for life and can wait months with their significant other before mating. Mounting is also done to establish or reinforce dominance between gerbils of the same gender. This will present little problems unless the gerbil who is being mounted doesn’t want to be submissive, or the mounting becomes excessive and borders on bullying behavior. Most often if the gerbil doesn’t wish to be mounted it will stand tall on its hind legs, usually side on and push the other gerbil away firmly with their face, and an occasional boxing away of the other gerbil.
Gerbil Lingo: “Mom knows best!”
Moving pups around the tank is quite common for female gerbils and in some cases males also. Sometimes it is the mother trying to control temperature by regularly moving, covering and uncovering the pups. If a particular litter is large the mum may split them into two groups to make them easier to manage. Occasionally it may signal that the mum is feeling insecure so you should always ensure that the mother has private spaces to put the pups in, e.g. cardboard boxes or other sheltered areas in the tank so that she can feel secure.
Gerbil Lingo: “I love you. You’re my best friend.”
Gerbils showing affection to one another will nibble on one another, especially during mutual cleaning. If your gerbil nibbles on you, it may feel like an non-painful bite, but you should not pull your hand away in a knee-jerk reaction. It may scare the gerbil and then they may end up seriously biting out of fear and drawing blood. Instead let the gerbil nibble and explore and slowly pull your finger away and then pet the gerbil to reassure them.
Gerbil Lingo: “Hello, my name is gerbil. How are you?” – or – “High-five, bud!”
This is a very friendly way that gerbils will introduce themselves to one another, or just say hello. It also is a form of communication that lets the gerbils get a sense of how the other is doing. Their saliva gives a full array of information on the health and ‘climate’ of the gerbil. It’s also possible that if your gerbil is close to you, they may try to touch noses with you as well!
Gerbil Lingo: “You make me feel so happy and safe. In fact, I’m so happy I could burst!”
Like cats, gerbils can purr when they are comfortable. You won’t hear a sound, but you can feel them vibrate in your hand. Their purrs look like a shiver, as if they had a sudden chill. It’s a gerbil way of saying, “I’m very happy!” You may feel this as you hold him in your hand. This conveys a message of feeling safe and content.
Gerbil Lingo: “I demand attention and love.”
When a gerbil rolls over onto their back and exposes their belly to you or another gerbil, it’s a submissive posture that means “I want to be groomed!” Your gerbil may also request a grooming by placing their chin on the ground, with their nose in the other gerbil’s mouth.
Gerbil Lingo: “HEY! Something’s not right here!”
Your gerbil will squeak loudly if he feels he is in danger. Gerbil pups will squeak when they are hungry or annoyed by something mom or dad is doing, like moving or cleaning them.
Gerbil Lingo: “Neat things are happening. I must get a better look.” – or – “If I don’t move it won’t see me!”
Curious to the core, gerbils will stand on their hind legs to get a better view of what’s going on around them. If you see a gerbil standing, but their hands are held closely together against their body, they may be frightened and looking for any danger present. When curious, a standing gerbil will move their head around whereas a concerned gerbil on alert will stand deathly still and stare straight ahead.
Standing Side By Side
Gerbil Lingo: “You’re crossing a thin line with me, pal. You’d best step back.”
If your gerbils are standing side by side with backs arched fur fluffed up, this is a sign of irritation and warning. They may also press the sides of their faces against each other forcefully. This behavior is something akin to a staring contest to see who will back down first or if the situation will escalate into boxing or balling. Make sure you keep a close eye on them and separate them if they start fighting.
Gerbil Lingo: “Hey there, sweet thing.” – or – “DANGER! Spread the word and get to safety!”
Rhythmic foot thumping is a natural way of gerbils communicating with each other (and you). There are two reasons gerbils thump: to warn other gerbils in their colony of danger or in sexual excitement. The rhythms are slightly different for each type of thumping if you pay close enough attention, though gerbils can certainly tell the difference. While an alarm thump may produce a chorus of warning thumps, a mating thumps will often go ignored. Young gerbils seen thumping are often just “practicing” in their little drum circles.
Gerbil Lingo: “I feel pretty, oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty and bright!”
Some animals wash themselves when they are nervous, like cats. But a gerbil usually stops to wash their face, sides, stomach and tail when they are feeling relaxed and relatively safe. This is a great indicator of trust if a gerbil washes itself while sitting in your hand.