Buying the right equipment will make for a happier life both for your gerbils and for you. The choices you made will influence your gerbil’s health, happiness, and tameness. Your own happiness, convenience and budget need to be considered also. Before you get your gerbils, you need to get their new home ready.
The Glass Tank
The easiest and most economical housing for a pair of gerbils is a ten-gallon aquarium, for a number of reasons. It is inexpensive, easy to lift, and easy to get very clean. Gerbils can’t kick bedding out of a glass tank, nor drop shelled seeds all over the floor. It keeps dust and allergens restricted to a smaller area. It protects your gerbils from drafts and chills. You must purchase separately a wire mesh tank lid which will keep the gerbils from escaping and protect them from harm.If you have very young children or predatory pets (cats, dogs, or ferrets) you should purchase some sturdy lid clips as well.
Beliefs vary considerably about how large a tank to buy. Some feel a 10 gallon is too small and point out that gerbils display more stereotypical digging behavior in a small tank. They recommend a 15 or 20 gallon tank for a pair, with proportionally larger sizes for larger groups. However, there are downsides to a too-large space; if a group of gerbils can split up into separate “camps”, a territorial conflict becomes more likely.
You must also be realistic about keeping larger tanks clean. A large tank is heavier and may be impossible for a child to lift. Consider where you can give a tank a thorough scrubbing with soap and water when needed. Will it fit in your bathtub? Do you live where cleaning it outdoors is an option year-round? Do you have a small apartment or live in one room where space is at a premium? A good rule of thumb is to buy the largest size tank you can afford and which you really will keep clean. Because used aquariums are available cheap or for free on websites such as freecycle.org or craigslist.com, you could secure a wonderfully spacious home for your gerbils at very little cost. And most large pet store chains have occasional “dollar a gallon” sales on tanks where a bigger home becomes a bargain.
The following could be considered guidelines for the minimum tank size you should consider:
- 10-gallon tank 1 or 2 gerbils
- 15-gallon tank 3 gerbils
- 20-gallon tank 4 gerbils
- 30-gallon tank 6 gerbils
OTHER HOUSING CHOICES
There are other housing options you may consider. A large variety of wire cages are available for small animals, everything from a simple cage to a multilevel condo. However, cages have several disadvantages compared to a glass tank. First, gerbils love to rearrange and dig in their bedding. With all the playing, scurrying, and digging, bedding, seed shells and feces will end up all over the floor. Second, multilevel cages with ladders or wire floors can be dangerous to gerbils, especially to young pups. It easy for a gerbil to get a foot stuck between the bars, or even to break its leg. It is never advisable to use this type of cage with a breeding pair, as pups can easily fall from the higher levels. Third, gerbils often gnaw on wire cages incessantly, which can be both annoying to you and harmful to them, as they wear down their teeth excessively. They do however provide better ventilation than an aquarium, which might outweigh the drawbacks if you live a hot or humid climate.
The third type of home, often pushed by pet store staff for its replacement parts potential and adored by children for its play structure design, is the plastic habitat or “Habittrail”. The Habittrail was designed for hamsters, who lack the relentless chewing and energy level of gerbils. Although the structures are very popular, they are a very poor choice for gerbils.
Habitrails have poor ventilation, and gerbils will urinate in the tubes causing them to smell rather quickly. Breaking the tubes down for cleaning is a time-consuming and difficult process, and sometimes the tubes are hard to put back together at all. Gerbils will chew up all the plastic parts, putting them at risk for ingesting a sharp shard, a potentially fatal condition. Their chewing will also open up escape routes, leading to potentially fatal falls, entrapments or encounters with predatory family pets. Habittrails lack convenient access points for bringing your gerbils out to play, and gerbils may choose to nest in inaccessible places. Many delightful hand-tamed gerbils have “gone wild” in Habitrails, and conversely, many “unfriendly” gerbils that are relinquished to rescuers become charming, hand-tame pets again simply by moving them from Habitrails to aquarium tanks. Bottom line: do not buy a Habittrail set-up for your gerbils.
A compromise between wire cages and an aquarium tank is the tank topper. The tank topper gives your gerbils a multi-level experience and a great deal more space while retaining the small footprint of a 10 gallon tank. The tank keeps the bedding off the floor and gives gerbils a safe, comfy place to nest. However, the same risks of falls and injuries from the wire surfaces pertain to tank toppers too, and gerbils may still drop food and feces onto the floor. Before buying a tank topper, make sure it has good access to your gerbils for handling them. An open-from-the-top design is better than a door on the side. Even then, your gerbils may learn to scoot down the ramps to the bottom when they want to evade you, meaning you’ll have to remove the whole topper to handle them.
Gerbils require bedding to absorb their urine, as well as for digging fun. The only beddings recommended for gerbils are aspen, corncob, and Carefresh or similar paper-based bedding.. As descendents of desert animals, gerbils produce little urine, so avoid perfumed beddings which contain potentially irritating chemicals. The average 10-gallon tank with two gerbils in it will only need cleaning every two to three weeks. If water is spilled, it will smell bad and you will have to change the tank or at least remove the wet bedding. When cleaned on a regular basis a gerbil tank or cage should never smell.
After cleaning your tank, fill it with anywhere between 2-3 inches of bedding, or as much as ⅓ full. Bedding is a delight for gerbils. They burrow in it, move it around, construct nests with it, and bury their food in it. If the cost of bedding is holding you back from using generous amounts, you can give your gerbils a bunch of cardboard tubes, boxes, or shredded paper bags, which they will turn into bedding by themselves.
With a breeding pair, you may want to use less bedding so that pups don’t get lost and you can better see what is happening.
All gerbils will construct a nest of some sort in their tank. Some are spartan, with little more than a hollowed-out depression in the bedding, and some will be elaborate, airy constructions made with an artist’s flair. You can contribute two items to help your gerbils make a cozy nest: a nest box and nesting material.
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 one at a pet store. A plastic one is not recommended, since the gerbils will destroy it with chewing, risking ingesting a sharp piece of plastic in the process.Many gerbils will happily make a nest in a cardboard box. Any cardboard stock box that previously held food is fine for your gerbils, even colorful ones. A Pop-Tarts(™) box seems to be about the perfect size for a pair of gerbils.
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. However, some very nervous or protective parents do better with a nesting box. Usually it is best to start without one, and add it only if the situation seems to require it. A cardboard box, if acceptable to the parents, is at least lighter than wood.
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! Eco-bedding (™) is enjoyable as nest material; some people use it as the primary bedding as well. Avoid commercial bedding “fluff” or any fibrous materials, as it can be dangerous if ingested and particularly dangerous to young pups, who can lose a limb if entangled in it.
While you’ve read that gerbils produce very little urine because they descend from desert animals, pet gerbils still must have fresh water available at all times. Our gerbils’ diet is very different from their wild cousins, who would eat a lot of seeds, plants and roots that provide some moisture, compared to the mostly-seed diet we feed for our own convenience. You will need a water bottle; you will also need to clean it and fill it regularly, if not daily.
There are a number of bottle styles and most are sold with a simple wire hanger to use with cages. If you are using an aquarium tank, you will need to purchase separately 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.
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. Be sure to remove the washer and clean it thoroughly with your fingertips each time you fill it.
A good premixed gerbil food is recommended. It is easy to get the right combination of protein, minerals, vitamins, and bulk. As a general rule of thumb, use a food that has 14% protein minimum and look for the presence of some high-quality, more costly ingredients like pumpkin and “white stripe” sunflower seeds rather than lots of millet and “black oil” sunflower seeds. Sometimes the foods labeled “Rat and Mouse” have a higher protein count and more interesting ingredients than those labeled “Gerbil and Hamster”. Some experienced owners use the commercial seed mix as a base and then add in oatmeal, Cheerios, or another high-quality commercial food like Oxbow Healthy Handfuls™.
It is true that gerbils will first grab and consume the most tempting parts of the food, like the sunflower seeds. This has led some people to pull out those items. You can pull sunflower seeds out and feed them by hand to encourage tameness, but don’t remove them completely or you will eliminate a valuable ingredient from your gerbils’ food. To encourage your gerbils to eat more types of food, mix in healthy alternatives such as quinoa, barley or equine oats, and don’t overfeed. You can calibrate the quantity by examining what food is left when you clean the tank. If there is nary a scrap of uneaten food, increase the portion slightly. If you are throwing away handfuls of edible food with the bedding, reduce the portion. Ideally there should be just a few bits of uneaten food and lots and lots of emptied shells and husks.
In the wild, gerbils would not eat seed mix. In their desert environment, seeds would be a seasonal delight and make up a small part of their diet. Instead, they’d eat far more greens, roots and insects. Feeding your gerbils hay, leafy greens or bits of uncooked vegetables daily or a few times a week is excellent for their health. Gerbils love all leafy greens, from kale to baby dandelion leaves straight from your untreated lawn. They will also happily eat any other fruit or vegetable that you could eat raw – broccoli, zucchini, green beans, peas, apple slices, blueberries, strawberries or grapes cut in half (don’t know why but they much prefer them cut). As with human nutrition, variety is a big aid to health. Many people also prefer organic vegetables, extending their concern about pesticides to their pets’ diets. You will want to remove any uneaten vegetables so they don’t rot, but if your portion sizes are correct you won’t find any!
Is Lab Block OK for Gerbils?
Some pet stores will push lab block as a “one size fits all” solution for small pet buyers, probably because they aren’t sure what else to recommend. In a word – NO – lab block is not good nutrition for gerbils. While lab rats and mice do fine on lab block, gerbils are more choosy eaters and will eat just enough lab block to get by, and will be weak and thin compared to better nourished gerbils. Also consider, lab block is again a product of human convenience: in a lab, you want all your subjects eating the same diet so that it is not an extraneous variable in your experiments. You are buying pets, animals to love. Give them a diet that will provide them with some joy.
Food Dish or No?
Opinions vary about the usefulness of a food dish. It is of little use, since gerbils will just fill it with bedding. Sprinkling the food directly on the bedding encourages gerbils to forage, which is a natural and enjoyable activity. We recommend saving your money and skipping the food dish.
If you do choose to buy one, don’t make the mistake of peeking quickly in the tank and saying, “oh it’s still partly full”. Your gerbils will shell their seeds back into the dish and make it look full when it’s not. If you do use a dish, put in only enough food that they’ll eat their portion daily. Then discard the remainder and refill the next day. Again, no dish and regular feeding is easier and preferable.
TOYS AND EXERCISE
Most gerbils will run a wheel quite enthusiastically, especially if they were exposed to it from a young age. Some won’t. Since a wheel provides one of the best ways for your gerbils to exercise, it’s worth trying one to see if they like it.
A safe wheel will be made of heavy, solid plastic (too heavy to chew) or metal mesh. The dangerous “slatted” wheels that could potentially catch a gerbil’s tail are not available now except at yard sales. Almost any wheel you buy from a pet store will be reasonably safe. However, lightweight plastic wheels may be chewed up and then become dangerous when a gerbil steps into a hole it has created and breaks a leg or worse.
Wheel size is important. A full-grown gerbil needs a wheel at least 8” in diameter; even these often cause gerbils to hold their tails curved above their heads, and this may ultimately affect the carriage of the gerbil’s tail. If your tank is larger than 10 gallons, you can purchase an even larger, more comfortable wheel. If you adopt pups, you may need to purchase different wheels as they grow.
The wheel can stand on the floor of the cage or can be hung from the lid with “twisties” or cable ties.
One caution: if you plan to show your gerbils, a wheel that makes the gerbil run with the tail in a curved position will eventually develop a curved tail, which costs points in the show ring. You may wish to forego the wheel, or keep show gerbils in tanks large enough that you can supply a big wheel where they can run without a bent tail.
Fun fact: animals will even choose to run a wheel in the wild! (See here.)
Plastic running balls in which gerbils can “free-wheel” or run in a plastic track are popular. Some gerbils “get” this idea, and some don’t. If you don’t mind the chance that your gerbils will flunk out with this toy, it can be fun for everyone if used safely. Safety rules include: cut off any access to stairs and other pets; one gerbil per ball; no touching, kicking, or shoving the ball – only the gerbil can move it – with the exception of gently lifting and moving them if they get stuck.Very small pups will not be able to move a ball; save it for later if you adopt babies.
After running, chewing presents the next most loved exercise for gerbils. You will not believe how much stuff your gerbils will be able to chew up! There are many fun chewing toys available in stores, but paperboard and cardboard salvaged from your recycling stream is cheap and plentiful. Tubes from toilet paper and paper towels; small boxes that contained food items; cardboard shipping inserts; gift tissue paper; it’s all around you. Just make sure it’s clean, free of any potential hazard, not so small a gerbil could get stuck in it, and free from plastic tape or other fibers that gerbils could ingest. Corrugated cardboard does have fibers and glue that some gerbil owners choose to avoid.