Eating is without question a favorite part of gerbil life. The gerbil is a granivorous rodent and a little omnivorous, too. This means that in the wild, gerbils round out their usual diet of dry grains and seeds with tasty bugs, juicy roots, and chewy leaves.
You can recreate this at home by serving your gerbils a high quality dry food mix. Add small treats of fresh produce each week to complete their dietary regimen.
Pet stores carry assortments of dry mix brands for rodents. Some companies even produce formulas just for gerbils. However, if you’re feeling creative, you can prepare your own recipe at home.
Whether you choose homemade or a commercial brand, it’s vital familiarize yourself with the nutritional needs of gerbils. This guide covers how to balance protein and fat intake, which food are safe and much, much more.
WAYS TO FEED YOUR GERBIL
There is no real wrong way to feed your gerbil as long as they’re receiving all the nutrients they need in their diet. It comes down to a matter of preference and which method you’re most comfortable with.
Using a food dish is a completely optional style of feeding that involves using a sturdy bowl which can’t be tipped over easily. Gerbils can chew on plastic where it can become a choking hazard. It’s much safer to stick to bowls that are made of ceramic, glass or metal.
Gerbils instinctively bury their food as a way to protect it from other animals, including other gerbils. But if you want to monitor what they’re eating habits closely this is a good choice. Bowl feeding is especially recommended for breeders or caregivers with ill or over/underweight gerbils.
Foraging for food is something gerbils do naturally in the wild.
Food can be placed directly on the bedding in the center of the tank allowing the gerbils to forage. Most gerbils will bury their food dish in their bedding. This is their way of protecting it from other gerbils. Don’t worry they will be able to find it with no problem. A food dish is not necessary because the gerbils will just bury it under their bedding.
Food scattered directly on the surface of the bedding to help prevent squabbling. It is also enriching to the animals by giving them foraging opportunities.
Combo feeding is the best of both worlds for gerbils and their humans. Scatter treats around the bedding to encourage their natural foraging behavior and fill their bowl with their normal dietary meal. This way you can ensure they’re still eating healthy at a glance.
By placing their bowl on a platform, such as a wooden bridge or flat stone, you can usually prevent gerbils from burying their food.
A BALANCING ACT
A good balance of dry food mix has the correct ratios of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. These numbers scale depending on the ages and activities of your gerbils. Commercial food list the percentages on their labels so it’s easy to get the right combination. This includes vitamins and minerals. Some brands use chemical dyes in their products to make it “look pretty.” It’s a good idea to remove those pieces before feeding. Making your own food at home can be healthier (and fun) if you don’t mind doing a little research.
As a general rule active gerbils need more fat and protein than older, less active gerbils.
Protein is incredibly important for growth and brain power. It’s the main fuel that a gerbil uses in all their daily activities. Having less than 15% in a food mix leads to slow growth in pups, and too much protein in their diet (+20%) causes liver damage, kidney stones and skin lesions. Underweight or recently ill gerbils may need a small period of time where their protein intake is 20% or more, but always check with your veterinarian first.
Fat plays a vital but delicate role in a gerbil’s food regimen and should never be completely omitted. Optimum values vary between the 3% – 9% range. This percentage depends an individual gerbil’s age, activity levels and whether it’s breeding animal or just a pet. An active gerbil may need more fats for energy and to also help keep their coat in healthy condition. While it’s important to include fat in what gerbils eat, too much of it puts them at risk of serious health issues. Obesity, heart disease, strokes and sterility in females are just some of the problems caused by consuming more fat than necessary.
Portion is just as important as the food itself. A single gerbil should receive a serving of 1 tablespoon of their food mix per day. Since gerbils are picky eaters, they tend to eat what they prefer first and often avoid other foodstuffs. Refrain from refilling the bowl until it’s completely empty. Scatter fed gerbils should have their bedding checked through daily to make sure they eat everything. You may find that you only need to feed your gerbils every other day, but bowls and tanks should be checked every day.
If you only keep one or two gerbils as a pet, a good premixed food is the ideal way to go. Buying commercial is convenient but requires a bit of food label savvy as not all brands are actually healthy for gerbils. Some companies package their food for multiple animals that actually have very different dietary needs. So before grabbing the least expensive bag on the shelf, check that you avoid junk filled food which:
- contains too many wafers, crackers, or biscuits
- uses any sort of chemical dyes or preservatives
- drowns the mix with too much millet
- contains lots of corn and sunflower seeds
- does not meet the protein and fat requirements
Common Commercial Brands
The best commercial dry foods are all natural and have the correct fat and protein percentages listed on the label. Check that the mix is fresh and hasn’t been lying on the shop shelf for a long period. Most of the nutrient values diminish over time and ingredients such as vitamins degrade very rapidly. Some brands are deficient in Calcium, and need to be supplemented accordingly with products that are high in Calcium, such as dry dog biscuits.
Below are common commercial brands that can be found online or at your local pet store. Included are the protein, fat and fiber percentages as well any dyes or preservatives used. If you’re unable to find any gerbil specific dry food brands that you like, rat food is a suitable alternative because they share the most similar dietary needs.
Dyes & Preservatives
Titanium dioxide is a common additive in food, personal care and other consumer products. Research conducted by the French National Institute of Agricultural Research in 2017 linked the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive to gut inflammation and bowel cancer in rats. They also found that it triggered imbalances in a rat’s immune responses. The FDA regulates titanium dioxide as a “Generally Required as Safe” substance. Despite this, many companies are taking steps to remove it from their products.
Calcium propionate is an anti-fungal added to bread and biscuit products to prevent mold growth. It has the potential to permanently damage the stomach lining by exacerbating gastritis and inducing severe ulcers. A study in the “Journal of Paediatric Child Health” in 2002 found that chronic exposure to calcium propionate caused negative behavioral changes such as irritability and restlessness. It’s also linked to migraine headaches.
Sulfur dioxide is a preservative primarily found in soft drinks, wines, and dried fruits/vegetables. It’s added to extend shelf life and kill bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration consider it safe to consume for most people, though it can induce asthma in those that are sensitive to it. It’s unknown if this also applies to gerbils, but if your gerbil has respiratory issues you may wish to avoid any commercial foods containing this preservative.
Yellow 5 is a petroleum-based chemical dye also known as tartrazine. It’s most notably used in soft drinks like Mello Yellow and Mountain Dew. A long standing rumor states that yellow 5 drastically reduces male fertility. Several studies have proven and disproved that theory. Two small studies in mice – one from Algeria in 2009 and the other from India in 2010 – linked tartrazine intake with slightly decreased sperm production. Gerbil breeders may want to avoid commercial foods containing this dye.
Yellow 6 is a synthetic, petroleum-based food colorant used in foods like cereal, dietary supplements and cosmetics. It’s commonly called sunset yellow FCF. Studies on mice have yet to provide any evidence that yellow 6 is dangerous to consume as long as it doesn’t contain a contaminant called Sudan I. Banned in many countries, Sudan I causes cancer and has a destructive effect on DNA.
Blue 1 is a petroleum-based artificial food dye also named brilliant blue FCF. Used primarily in candy, cereal, soft and sport drinks, a study in 2007 by the University of South Hampton linked the dye (among others) to increased hyperactivity in children. Other studies have found blue 1 to cause brain cancer and inhibit nerve-cell development. It’s currently banned in Norway, Finland and France.
Blue 3 is a food colorant also referred to as acid blue. Very little information exists online regarding this substance. The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists blue 3 as a calcium and sodium compound.
Red 40 is a synthetic food dye derived from petroleum distillates or coal tars. Named allura red, it’s used in fruit cocktails, cherry pie mix, ice cream and candy. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found red 40 causes immune system tumors in mice. The National Center for Biotechnology Information also published the results of a study which showed lowered reproductive success in rats. Gerbil breeders may want to avoid commercial foods containing this dye.
Pellets or blocks designed for rodents are not recommended as a sole food source when considering commercial foods. While they are full of the necessary levels of protein, fat and fiber, they usually taste bland and will be avoided by gerbils. Providing a diet strictly of pellets can result in skinny gerbils. Because of this, it is recommended to only allow up to 10% of your food mix to contain pellets.
The idea of a homemade mix is to be better than what is commercially available. Making food at home is a good choice for breeders and individuals who care for a large collection of gerbils. It can be a fun activity to share with family and friends.
Ingredients are often bought as raw elements directly from the bulk section of a grocery store. You can also visit local animal feed stores that offer nutritious selections of oats and grains. Ordering online may sound convenient, however, reconsider this option since you can’t directly check the quality of the food in person. Try to avoid using cheap ingredients whenever possible, as this negates any benefit you are hoping to achieve by making your own food.
There are some minor drawbacks to be aware of when it comes to making your own gerbil food. For example, getting the ratios of fat, protein, fiber and other main ingredients just right. Storage of the raw ingredients may also present a problem as they take up a lot of space. Aside from that, once mixing the ingredients are mastered your gerbil food has the potential to be superior to any commercial brands available.
To calculate nutritional information for any of the recipes, determine the percentage of protein, fat, etc. in that food and multiply that percentage by the percentage of that food in the mix. In other words, if your mix uses one cup each of ten ingredients, you would multiply the protein percentage of each ingredient by 0.1, and then add the numbers together. For example, if peanuts contained 28% protein and represented 10% of the mix (1 part in 10), then they would contribute 2.8% protein to the mix. If corn contained 8% protein, it would contribute .8 percent, and so on. You can find nutrition facts for any food on the Internet.
Is Millet Bad?
On many websites and forums, gerbil caregivers are told to steer clear of millet or to feed it sparingly because it’s considered a stimulant that can get your gerbil ‘high’. This is misinformation. Fortunately the truth is that millet is the ideal supplement for both pets and breeding gerbils.
Millet is probably the world’s earliest food plants used by humans. As a food source it’s non-glutinous and easy to digest. Filled with high in quality protein, millet also contains high fiber and essential vitamins that are healthy. The fat content of the seed is made up of 80% polyunsaturated fats which are beneficial to your gerbil.
Millet is frequently used as a very nutritious component in most commercial gerbil foods. Some brands may drown their formula in too much millet, leaving little variety for other critical grains and seeds. Paying attention to the mix ratio and nutrition label will help determine if the brand you’re purchasing is good.
Being a small seed it is ideal for weaning gerbils, too. Little pups just learning to eat solid foods can easily hold millet, and it helps them grow with all the nutritional requirements they need for energy and brain power.
The truth of the matter is that when used as a seed supplement to any food mixes it’s very safe, extremely healthy and a very beneficial addition to your gerbil’s diet.
Staple Dry Ingredients
Bird Feed can include various bird foods, especially those that contain smaller seeds, such as a foreign finch, canary or budgie mix. Other suitable bird foods to add in small quantities are racing pigeon mix, high protein chicken feed for egg layers, Cockatiel mix or Parrot mix. A good birdseed mix is usually a good place to start for home made mixes because gerbils by nature are natural seed eaters.
Horse Feed usually consists of rolled oats, corn, barley and Alfalfa. Be sure to avoid molasses flavored as it has too much sugar.
Dry Bulk is the best section found in most grocery stores and health food stores. Dry bulk will have a variety of nuts, grains, pasta and dried fruit that can be added to to your mix. Don’t feed any dried fruit that is treated with sugar or syrup. Same for nuts: avoid any salted or roasted nuts. Instead opt for nuts in their raw state. Nuts contain loads of fat so add them to your mix in strict moderation. Variety in nut selection is also key, especially ones that are still in their shells because they can chew through it for fun. Good examples are Pine Nuts, Cashews, Almonds, Acorns, Beechnuts, Brazil Nuts, Pistachios, Peanuts, Chestnuts, Pecans, Walnuts and Hazel Nuts.
Cereals that are puffed, natural and no-sugar based are a great choice to add to your dry food mix. They are made of what makes up a gerbil’s main diet. In addition cereal is fortified with vitamins and minerals that humans and gerbils alike will benefit from. Examples of recommended cereals are Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, and Cheerios.
Pasta such as whole wheat dried pasta is okay to give your gerbils, but only in moderation. Avoid adding rice to a dry mix. Rice should be cooked and given as a treat separately.
Providing your gerbils with a nutritious and well-balanced diet goes beyond a dry food diet. Just make sure you always know which veggies and fruits are appropriate and safe. For example, fresh food is always preferable to canned food because you avoid all of the preservatives and salt that go into the canning process.
Fibrous fruits are better fruits to provide your gerbils over citrus fruits. Fruits like oranges and lemons can be too acidic for gerbils and also contain more water that can cause diahrrea. Even some fibrous fruits like grapes and watermelon can contain too much water for your gerbil so use discretion when choosing what to feed them.
Be sure to always thoroughly rinse fruits and vegetables before giving them to your gerbil. Do this regardless if the food is organic or GMO (Genetically Modified Organism). In addition to removing potential pesticides, washing also removes any traces of dirt, germs or chemicals left behind by other people who handled the food before you brought it home.
Slicing fresh produce up into small pieces that are easy for your tiny pet to handle is important. A good serving is roughly the size of single bites or half-teaspoons. Being the picky eaters that they are, gerbils can easily choose to eat veggies and fruits over their normal dry food. Veggies and fruits lack the protein levels that gerbils require and this may result in protein deficiencies. Avoid this scenario by always offering fruits and vegetables in strict moderation 1-2 times per week.
If your gerbil doesn’t finish their vegetables within an hour, be sure to remove them rather than leave them to spoil inside the cage. Leaving fresh food inside the cage for long periods of time can attract bugs and turn the bedding to rot. And besides- you don’t want to risk your little gerbils eating anything that is less than fresh!
Foods To Avoid
TREATS & SUPPLEMENTAL
Sunflower seeds are -the- traditional favorite of gerbils. Due to their high fat content sunflower seeds should be just an occasional treat. A great alternative is raw, unseasoned pumpkin seeds.
Nuts are a good treat by themselves. Avoid any salted or roasted nuts. Instead opt for nuts in their raw state, especially ones that are still in their shells because they can chew through it for fun. Good examples are Pine Nuts, Cashews, Almonds, Acorns, Beechnuts, Brazil Nuts, Pistachios, Peanuts, Chestnuts, Pecans, Walnuts and Hazel Nuts.
Dried fruit like papaya, banana and apricot are a great choice because they aren’t messy and can be left in your gerbil’s habitat longer than fresh food. Don’t feed any dried fruit that is treated with sugar or syrup.
Yogurt drops contain low milk sugar and microbes that are beneficial to the digestive tract. Aside from these obvious health benefits, yogurt drops are an especially tasty treat and favorite of most rodent species. If you buy yogurt drops made for humans be sure to check that it does not contain too many preservatives.
Mealworms are often considered fish food, but your gerbils will probably like them, too. Look for freeze dried worms since the live ones can carry E.coli. They’re also less messy. Mealworms are a good source of fat, but surprisingly don’t contain much protein.
Crickets are packed with protein and safe to offer freeze dried or live to gerbils as long as they’re purchased from a pet store. Just be aware that they can escape, lay eggs, or get lost in the bedding and re-emerge later en masse.
Dog biscuits are a very healthy alternative to sunflower seeds. The biscuits are hard and meet the gerbil’s need for gnawing and tooth wear, as well as providing a source of nutrients and minerals. Do not feed your gerbils cat food.
Timothy Hay is a critical food staple in a gerbil’s diet. It assists their digestive system as a healthy ‘roughage’ and maintains their dental hygiene. Gerbils also have a great time run running around the cage with it in their mouths, building nests and tunneling in and out of the piles.
Baby food is a perfect choice for gerbils that may have broken or freshly clipped teeth caused by overgrowth. Elderly gerbils that might have trouble eating solid foods often have an easier time being spoon or bowl fed with baby food.
Vitamin Drops provide an extra source of vitamin essentials for proper growth and good health maintenance. You can add it to your gerbil’s food, but it’s more effective to add it directly into their water bottle. It’s not a requirement but helpful for treating gerbils with malnutrition and illness. An example brand is VITA-Drops from Oasis.
Pedialyte is used to replace fluids and minerals lost when a gerbil is ill with diarrhea or has suffered heat stroke. Check with your veterinarian for specific instructions in case they advise diluting it with water. Administer Pedialyte with an eye dropper, syringe or even add it to your gerbil’s water bottle directly. Wash out the water bottle thoroughly afterwards before refilling with plain water.
Kitten Replacement Milk is similar to Pedialyte but offers much more nutritional value, especially to nursing-age gerbil pups. It’s best to use the powdered form rather than liquid because you can mix it as strongly as needed. It also stays longer in refrigerated storage.
Oxbow Critical Care is a powdered solution used for recovery nutrition for gerbils with poor nutrition resulting from illness or surgery. It’s designed to be easy to digest with beneficial prebiotics. It can be assist-fed by syringe or spoon, or self-fed by bowl or as top dressing.
Photo Credits: Shawsheen River Gerbils, Getty Images, commercial products to their respective company, PetCo