How to Care for Gerbils

Three Parts:Purchasing GerbilsCaring for Your GerbilEnriching Your Gerbil’s Life

Gerbils are a popular type of pet for good reason; they’re friendly, social, and inquisitive. Although they are not as expensive as a cat or a dog, they will require daily attention and care. Perhaps most importantly, you need to provide a suitable habitat that will allow them to burrow as they would in the wild. [1]

Part 1
Purchasing Gerbils

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    Find a breeder. The best option is to purchase from a breeder. Because of the number of animals at a pet store, these establishments can have difficulty keeping track of the gender of gerbils and their relationship to one another. This is problematic since they are both social and territorial, requiring carefully planned interaction. A gerbil breeder is more likely to know the gender of the gerbil, whether two gerbils are familiar with one another, and whether they are related.[2]
    • A breeder should allow you to meet the parents of your gerbils. Ask to do this and verify that you like their disposition and health. Many of their traits will be passed on to their litter.
    • Ask the breeder questions about the pup and its litter. Was it born healthy? What percentage of the litter died? How inbred are the parents? How do the parents interact with other gerbils?[3]
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    Look for healthy and friendly gerbils. Even healthy gerbils are only likely to live for two to four years. You should be attentive, therefore, to signs that your gerbil is ill. There are also some cues which will indicate whether or not the gerbil is likely to be friendly.
    • For healthy gerbils, look for a tail that is as long as the body and full of fur; eyes that are shiny, large, and clear; and a body that is thick and stout. Dull or sunken eyes, red noses, bleeding noses, and depressed demeanors suggest that the gerbil is ill.[4]You should not buy a gerbil that has overgrown teeth, patches of fur falling of, diarrhea or has evidence of diarrhea in the cage, seems to be skinny or not eating/drinking, or sneezing and has a running nose.
    • The signs that a gerbil is friendly are much what you would expect. It should approach the glass and seek attention. It is natural for young gerbils to nibble a bit with their mouth, as a way to explore their surroundings. This, however, should not be painful. If the gerbil bites you hard, it is likely anti-social. [5]
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    Purchase multiple gerbils. Gerbils are naturally social animals and will get depressed and listless if left to themselves. You should always purchase at least two and perhaps more. Usually the optimal arrangement for a first time owner is purchase two gerbils of the same sex. If your gerbils breed, it can be both an expensive and complicated process for you.
    • Recognizing the sex of two gerbils is not always easy. To do so, turn them over on their back in your hand. At three weeks old, females will exhibit a shorter distance between their urinary and anal openings. At five to seven weeks of age, males will develop prominent testicles that will make identification easier. The qualified assistance of a professional will help, but, depending upon the establishment, the owner might not have sufficient knowledge of the gerbil’s background to provide much guidance.[6]
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    Find gerbils that like one another. This can be difficult if the seller does not have sufficient knowledge of their interactions. If possible you should purchase gerbils that are from the same litter and somewhere from six to eight weeks old. This is the optimal time for them to establish relationships with each other. If this is not possible, you can introduce them with the split cage method.
    • To introduce unfamiliar gerbils to one another, purchase an aquarium divider. Place it in the middle of the tank and place the gerbils on different sides of the tank. Switch which side the gerbils are on several times per day so that they become accustomed to the other’s scent.
    • After about a week lift the divider and monitor the gerbils closely for a day. While it is okay if they box slightly, if they spring into the air or start rolling around in a ball fighting, these are indications that they are aggressive and should be separated immediately. Conversely, if they sleep together, this means that they have bonded.
    • If this procedure fails, try three more times. If it still does not work, it is probable they will never be able to get along.
    • Never try to introduce a bonded pair to a third gerbil. They will gang up on the unfamiliar newcomer.[7]
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    Purchase housing. The best habitat for a gerbil is a large glass tank. For two Gerbils a 10-gallon tank should suffice. For each additional gerbil, the tank should be 5 gallons larger. Fill up a third of the tank with a substrate like Megazorb, Finacard, Carefresh or Bedexcel that the gerbils can dig in. Sufficient room to burrow is necessary to keep your gerbils active and entertained.[8]
    • Never line the bottom with sawdust because pine and cedar wood shavings can cause serious respiratory problems.[9]
    • You will need a top to protect the gerbils. The best option is something like a fine wire mesh that can be purchased at a pet store. These are optimal because you can hang items from them, including a wheel and a water bottle.
    • Avoid cages. Gerbils can easily get their feet caught in wire. Be mindful of this when purchasing anything for their home, including wheels.[10]

Part 2
Caring for Your Gerbil

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    Feed your gerbil well. The first step to good health is a good diet. Like us, gerbils need a balanced diet of greens, protein, fats, and vitamins. Their base diet should be a commercially produced gerbil food, because these are designed to accommodate all of their nutritional needs. However, this can be augmented with occasional treats. Food should be scattered across the surface of the bedding.
    • Start with gerbil pellets or combinations of seeds marketed at the pet store for gerbil consumption.
    • Gerbils like seeds, but avoid giving them too many sunflower seeds, as these are particularly fatty. Pumpkin seeds are better.
    • Supplement their dried food with fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables, including pear, melon, apple, oranges, cucumbers, carrots, pumpkins, and fennel. Rhubarb and grapes, on the other hand, are poisonous to gerbils.[11] Hay is also a popular and healthy treat for gerbils; use the type available at pet stores.[12]
    • You do not need bowls. Scattering food is easier for you and better for your gerbils as it encourages their natural instinct to forage, while discouraging fighting.
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    Equip the bowl with a water bottle. Get one with a nice metal spout. It helps if the body is composed of clear plastic, so you can see how full it is with a glance. Hang it from a mesh lid on a glass aquarium or through the bars of your topper. Clean the spout regularly. Refill frequently enough that the gerbils always have access to water.
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    Make a bed. A simple wooden box is ideal for nesting. These can be purchased at a store. Shred tissue paper into small strips and place into the box to make your gerbils bed complete.[13]
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    Clean cage periodically. You should check the cage daily and remove any stale food that has not been eaten. Otherwise gerbils are relatively clean. The bedding will need to be replaced, but not more than once a week.[14]

Part 3
Enriching Your Gerbil’s Life

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    Encourage play and exercise. Exercise is also important to any pet's health. Luckily gerbils are naturally active. Space and bedding for digging are the most important requirements for gerbils. Other items, however, can help.
    • A solid wheel can provide great exercise. If it is not solid, the gerbil can get its feet or tail stuck and hurt itself. Avoid this. Also be sure to suspend the wheel off the ground from the wire top, so that it does not take up space in the cage.[15]
    • Pet stores sell wooden chew toys for gerbils that can provide entertainment.
    • An exercise ball is the best way to allow your gerbil to explore the wider world and get a work out.[16]
    • Gerbils also love cardboard. A cheap way to entertain gerbils is to give them the cardboard center of a roll of toilet paper after you have used it up.[17]
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    Take it slow. When you first purchase your gerbil, it might be too disturbed by its new environment to be friendly. Do not try to pick it up for the first couple of days. You can, however, begin to build positive associations with it by hand-feeding it seeds.[18]
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    Handle with care. You will want to handle the gerbil often so that it becomes accustomed to human interaction. A happy gerbil will receive daily social interaction. However, you should be careful. Wash your hands before handling. Use both hands to create a big bowl that will support the gerbil. Place your hands next to the gerbil so that it will walk up on to them. [19]
    • Avoid standing directly above the gerbil. It will associate any shadows being cast on it with predators, causing agitation.
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    Do not pick up your gerbil by the tail; this can break the tail. Cup the gerbil and hold it carefully.[20]
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    Do not breed. A pair of gerbils can produce ninety-six pups a year. Those pups will soon begin to produce more babies. Unless you have considerable experience with gerbils, you should verify that you have no mixed sex pairs in your possession. Otherwise you will shortly be responsible for a small army of gerbils.[21]


  • Make sure to change the water daily, to prevent bacteria growth.
  • Don't buy any fluffy bedding or nesting material as it can strangle them and if they consume it it will cause a blockage in their digestive system and possibly kill them.
  • Make sure you get a big enough tank for them to run around.
  • Even though it is good to give them things to gnaw on, make sure none of these things are dyed, painted, polished, etc., as there may be harmful chemicals in the stain, paint or varnish.
  • Consider buying a few wood pieces for you tank. Some good ones are the half logs and blocks with holes drilled in them. Try to give your gerbils a variety of things to interact with in their tank. Different textures, sizes, and shapes will all keep you pet entertained and provide lots of entertainment for you. You should always use caution and good sense when picking items to put in the tank, and understand that gerbils chew everything, so no glass or metal that they could potential chew and break. Don't buy wood that has been treated, or that splinters easily.
  • Don't get/use Cedar Shavings. This has fumes and will possibly kill them.
  • Make sure that your gerbil gets a little fresh air at least once a month.
  • If you want to, you can add small blocks of wood for your gerbils.


  • Modular systems such as rotastak and habit-rail are not suitable for gerbils[22], and neither are hamster cages. They must have room to burrow.
  • Gerbils box and wrestle for fun, but sometimes fights turn nasty. If blood is drawn, you'll need to separate them immediately. Use gloves to protect your hand. Do not separate for a day or longer unless you intend to permanently separate them. After a day they will lose their scent memory of each other and will no longer be bonded.[23]

Things You'll Need

  • good gerbil food
  • An upright water bottle
  • large aquarium
  • aspen or Care fresh bedding(not cedar or pine)
  • straw, cardboard, or tissue to use for the nest
  • a piece of untreated wood for chewing

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Gerbils