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Gerbils: Small, Sweet and Simple

Gerbils are low-maintenance pets that almost anyone can appreciate.
By Lindsay Bueno

GerbilGerbils aren’t just inside-the-habitat pets. They’re pocket pets, and they have plenty of personality. Not only are they easy to keep, they’re also quite intelligent, active and entertaining to watch. And because gerbils have a penchant for people, a gerbil owner can even teach his pets to climb up his arm and onto his shoulder—and that’s just the start of the fun.

Almost anyone can keep a gerbil. Children over the age of 5, apartment residents, hard-working professionals and people who are frequently away from home may find gerbils to be better suited to their lifestyles than, say, a dog. And if all this isn’t enough of a selling point, gerbils are quiet, clean and easy to please. Who could resist?

Classified under the order of rodents, gerbils are part of the hamster family and are in the same suborder as rats and mice. They’re bigger than mice, smaller than rats and about the same size as a small hamster. Unlike hamsters, gerbils have long tails. And unlike the tails of rats and mice, gerbil tails are furry and have a thick tuft at their tips.

Pet gerbils have a lifespan of about 31/2 years and have 41/2-inch-long bodies with tails the same length. An adult female weighs as little as 21/2 ounces; an adult male can weigh as much as 4 ounces. Distinguishing characteristics include long whiskers; muscular, bunny-like hind legs and large feet; large, almond-shape eyes that are either black or dark red; and a 11/2-inch scent gland on their bellies, which helps gerbils recognize one another and scent-mark territory. Though females tend to be more active, there aren’t many gender-based differences.

They come in more than 20 recognized color varieties, including colorpoint, which means the nose, paws, ears and tail are darker than the rest of the body. 

Fast Fact:
In California and Hawaii, pet gerbils are illegal because they are viewed as a threat to agriculture if released into the wild.


The gerbil species most commonly kept as a pet in the United States, the Mongolian gerbil, originated in northern China and Mongolia. In 1935, 20 breeding pairs of Mongolian gerbils were imported into Japan. In 1954, these gerbils were exported to the United States for research purposes. American scientists began taking them home as pets.

In 1964, gerbils traveled to the United Kingdom, where their popularity rose and resulted in breeding for color mutations. The establishment of gerbil color standards, and exhibiting gerbils in shows shortly followed.

The best pet gerbil is healthy and tame and doesn’t shy away. Selling pre-socialized gerbils can spare customers frustration. The key to proper gerbil handling is steadiness and firmness. Retailers can advise customers not to squeeze or grip them or pick them up by their tails.

Healthy Eats
Here are some healthful gerbil treats:

• Almonds, walnuts and unsalted peanuts
• Noncitrus fruits
• Flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and unsalted sunflower seeds
• Whole-grain bread, oatmeal and pasta
• Natural yogurt
• Pet grass
• Millet spray

Gerbils are smart and will quickly learn not to nibble on their handlers. If a gerbil seems to be vibrating, it’s purring and content. If a gerbil nips, it’s probably more interested in communicating than causing harm. A gerbil that nips may be trying to express an objection to improper handling or that it’s ill or in pain, but touching fighting gerbils can result in a puncture wound.

Habitats and Companions
Housing for gerbils takes up minimal space, but location is crucial to their well-being. The temperature should be 68 degrees to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. It can fluctuate on the floor of a home, so a gerbil habitat should be placed on a sturdy piece of furniture or stand and away from drafts, direct sunlight, heaters and windows.

Two tips retailers can give customers: Gerbils can make a lot of noise at night while gnawing, digging, drinking and exercising, so the bedroom may not be an ideal location. Also, gerbils have no natural fear of dogs, cats and other household pets, so their real estate should be at a safe distance.

Gerbils are social creatures and appreciate gerbil companions. A single pair of gerbils is the recommended arrangement, as groups of three or more may fight. A larger community of gerbils calls for a simple housing setup with only one hiding and sleeping spot so gerbils are less likely to set up territories.

Retailers can arrange for 5 gallons of space per gerbil and pass along this rule of thumb to prospective gerbil owners. Wire cages are adequate but obstruct viewing and allow bedding to be kicked out of the cage. Acrylic cages work but can get dull and scuffed, as do plastic cages that gerbils may gnaw over time and ultimately escape through. A glass aquarium is arguably the best choice, but can also be heavy.

Though wire cages and plastic tubing may not be ideal for primary residences, they are perfect add-on sales opportunities. Other extras include wooden structures, kiln-dried fruit branches, driftwood and anything gerbils can climb on, in, over and through.

Ceramic toys last longer than wood, but wood supports a gerbil’s need to gnaw. Retailers may want to tell customers that too many toys can overwhelm a gerbil. Toys can be alternated to provide variety and all accessories can be washed in hot water between uses. If a die-hard shopper becomes bored with what’s in the small-animal section for gerbils, direct him to the reptile, bird or fish sections, which may offer suitable retreats and other items.

At the very least, gerbils need a secure home with exercise equipment, absorbent bedding, a place to sleep, a water bottle and quality food. 

Room Service
Gerbils are easy to feed. A small handful of quality gerbil food every day or two is all that’s necessary. Pet gerbils may eat oats, millet, seeds, alfalfa, soy meal, some wheat and nuts as well as mealworms or crickets, though live food isn’t essential. Gerbils also eat bits of dried vegetables and forage for their food. Retailers can scatter some of the mix to encourage foraging instincts and suggest to customers that they do the same. Vitamin supplements can be added, but most commercial gerbil foods provide the nutrients a gerbil needs. Treats should make up no more than 10 percent of their diet.

Gerbils drink only about 1 teaspoon of water per day but still need 24-hour access to a bottle with fresh water to avoid dehydration. A 4-ounce water bottle is a good size.

Since gerbils use water efficiently and produce little waste, their housing can withstand two weeks of no cleaning. Retailers may want to tell customers that gerbils ingest their own waste. It contains nutrients, and this behavior is completely normal and helps to avoid vitamin B deficiency. For this reason, it’s actually a good thing not to clean the habitat too often. If the gerbil’s home has a strong or unpleasant smell, it should be cleaned immediately. <HOME>

Posted: June 18, 2008

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