Gerbils can make relatively low-maintenance, endlessly entertaining, and surprisingly loving companions for pocket pet experts and beginners alike. Their needs are pretty straightforward, and they’re fascinating animals to watch play, experience new things, and grow.
- Gerbil Care Basics
- 10 Tips from Gerbil Owners
- 1. Choose the right-sized gerbil tank or cage
- 2. Provide lots of room to dig
- 3. Start slow when it comes to handling your gerbil
- 4. Spot-clean your gerbil tank or cage
- 5. Provide plenty of fun activities
- 6. Don’t make the habitat too complicated
- 7. Watch out for signs of declanning
- 8. Get to know your gerbil’s likes and dislikes
- 9. Let your gerbils explore
- 10. Relax
- Caring for Gerbils Should Be Fun
Gerbils may appear fragile at first glance, and in many ways, they are. However, they’re also resilient and resourceful little creatures who naturally inhabit and thrive in harsh, arid climates.
Below, we’ll cover the basics of gerbil care, as well as offer 10 of the top tips from real gerbil owners.
Gerbil Care Basics
First, let’s look at the basics of owning and caring for a gerbil. These are the first things you’ll need to take care of if you’re thinking about adopting a gerbil as a pet.
Keep gerbils in pairs
Gerbils are social animals, and they can easily become depressed and unhealthy if kept alone in an enclosure. For that reason, most gerbil owners adopt two gerbils from the same litter at the same time.
Make sure, however, that both of your gerbils are either female or male so that you don’t end up with a litter of your own.
Provide fresh gerbil food and water
Choose a high-quality gerbil food (like this one), and supplement it with treats like fresh fruit and veggies and various seeds. Some gerbils also enjoy dried mealworms.
You’ll need to provide access to fresh water, too. In the wild, gerbils get most of their water intake from the plants they eat. But most of the food they eat in captivity is dry, so they require fresh water every day. The best way to provide this is with a water bottle.
Choose the right gerbil enclosure
Gerbil owners are endlessly creative when it comes to the enclosures they choose for their pets, from basic tank enclosures to hand-built gerbilariums.
The most important factors to consider are the size of the enclosure (we’ll cover this more further on) and the material. Gerbils can chew through almost anything, so close-spaced wire and glass are ideal.
Fill it with plenty of bedding
Gerbils are burrowing animals, which means they require more bedding than many other small animals. Keep in mind that you won’t have to replace all of the bedding more than once or twice a month.
Gerbils are relatively clean creatures, and they tend to designate a bathroom area that’s separate from their burrow or sleeping space.
Place your gerbils somewhere safe
Choose a place in your home where your gerbils can feel safe. It shouldn’t be too close to anything that can cause loud noise or a sense of danger.
For example, the enclosure should be away from doors that you frequently open and close, and it should be safe from potential “predators,” like cats and dogs.
Give your gerbils some toys and hideouts
Your gerbils can get bored easily, so it’s important to always have something for them to “work” on.
Anything chewable and safe (toilet paper or paper towel rolls are perfect) will keep your gerbils entertained for hours. They also like to have someplace to cuddle up together for naps, as well as a small container of sand (sand bath) for them to clean themselves in.
Many gerbils also like to have a separate dish or hideout to use as their bathroom, which can make keeping the enclosure clean a lot easier.
Finally, ensure that your gerbils have a wheel that’s large enough for them to run on without bending their back.
Interact with your gerbils every day
Gerbils can become deeply attached to their owners, and it’s important to interact daily to maintain that connection.
Even if your gerbils are skittish around you, you can build your relationship with them by just sitting near their enclosure. Try to talk to them or to others in the room so that they get accustomed to your voice.
10 Tips from Gerbil Owners
With the basics of caring for gerbils out of the way, let’s look at some of the more detailed advice that gerbil owners themselves have given (sourced from forums around the internet, as well as personal experience).
1. Choose the right-sized gerbil tank or cage
Consensus: You should provide between 10 and 20 gallons of space per gerbil, with most of the space being horizontal but providing enough depth to burrow.
Deciding how to house your pets can be one of the most difficult and stressful parts of adopting gerbils. Opinions abound about what size and type of cage or tank is best for gerbils, with some heated arguments taking place on forums like Reddit and even on Pinterest.
But when all is said and done, what’s most important is that your gerbils have enough space to dig, as well as some open space to run and jump around.
You should be letting your gerbils explore a larger area at least a few times a week. That way, they get the opportunity to explore and stretch their legs, while maintaining the safety and coziness of their actual enclosure.
2. Provide lots of room to dig
Consensus: Provide between 4 and 8 inches of substrate to dig.
As already mentioned above, gerbils are burrowing animals in the wild. And even pet gerbils retain this instinct to dig, dig, dig! So it’s important to make sure that your gerbils have at least five or six inches of bedding depth to burrow and nest.
3. Start slow when it comes to handling your gerbil
Consensus: Don’t force handling on your gerbil.
Some gerbils enjoy being handled, while others don’t and never will. But one thing that all experienced gerbil owners agree on is that you have to start slow when it comes to touching and holding your gerbil.
Start by hanging out with your gerbil at a distance, sitting outside their cage or tank for a period of time each day. From there, you can begin holding treats outside of their enclosure for them to sniff and investigate. Don’t rush them to take the treat; this may take a while.
Once your gerbil is comfortable with this, you can use a cupped hand with treats in it to offer treats to your gerbil inside of their enclosure. Once they start feeling comfortable, they’ll come up and put their paws on your hand to sniff the treats or even take them from you (they’ll probably snatch it as quickly as possible and run away to hide their treat in their den).
With enough time and treats, your gerbil may begin to feel comfortable with you stroking their back gently and eventually picking them up. If your gerbil bites or nips at you, put them back in their cage right away. (Responding to their wishes will also help you improve your communication with your gerbil.)
4. Spot-clean your gerbil tank or cage
Consensus: Spot-clean daily, full cleanout every two to four weeks.
Gerbils are one of the best small animals for beginners because they are relatively clean. That means that you don’t have to empty out all of their bedding and replace it very often. Most gerbil owners agree that you should fully clean the enclosure about every two to four weeks.
Instead of cleaning out the entire enclosure, gerbil owners recommend spot-cleaning. This involves removing soiled bedding or rinsing out any hideout that gerbils have designated as their “bathroom,” as well as wiping down surfaces and their wheel.
5. Provide plenty of fun activities
Consensus: Gerbils need different textures to chew, a wheel, and a sandbath.
Providing entertainment for your gerbil isn’t hard. They’ll chew anything, from plastic to paper to wood. And you don’t have to spend any money to please your tiny friends. Just save your leftover paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and you’ve already got a gerbil’s favorite activity covered.
Gerbils also enjoy chewing on paper, so coffee filters make a great option. You can create your own unique gerbil toys and puzzles using a mix of paper coffee filters, toilet paper rolls glued together with nontoxic glue, and alfalfa hay or dried snacks.
Keep your gerbils engaged mentally by creating new shapes and puzzles out of these materials.
6. Don’t make the habitat too complicated
Consensus: Gerbils can get overwhelmed by tubes, tunnels, and too many hideouts.
It’s tempting to feel like you should add space and complexity to your gerbil’s enclosure. After all, we as humans tend to prefer larger spaces with plenty of rooms to enjoy. But gerbils aren’t humans, and too many complicated tubes, tunnels, and toys can overwhelm them.
Most importantly, having too many different, separate spaces in your gerbil habitat can lead to declanning, which we’ll cover below.
7. Watch out for signs of declanning
Consensus: Separate your gerbils right away if you notice any signs of declanning. This is reversible, but it requires separation.
Gerbils form “clans,” or groups. Even if you just have two gerbils, they will consider themselves part of their own tiny “clan.” This is the healthy state for gerbils to be in, and if they separate, or become “declanned,” they can end up fighting and injuring (or even killing) each other.
This tends to happen when gerbils are kept in too large or too complicated of an environment. One gerbil may choose to sleep upstairs, while the other prefers downstairs. When they wake up, they may no longer recognize the other as part of their clan, and that can be dangerous.
If you notice any of the following, separate your gerbils and put fresh bedding in each of their enclosures. Declanning can be permanent, but if you catch it early, it can be reversed.
Signs of declanning include:
- Staking out separate territories
- Not letting one another pass within tubes and tunnels
- Excessive chasing around the enclosure, especially when it’s always one gerbil doing the chasing and not the other
- Defending the food dish or stash against the other gerbil
- More squeaking and thumping than usual
- Sleeping in separate areas
Learn more: All About Gerbil Declanning & How to Prevent It
8. Get to know your gerbil’s likes and dislikes
Consensus: Every gerbil is unique.
You might see a photo a gerbil owner posts online of their gerbils enjoying fresh lettuce or a baby carrot and wonder why your gerbil only seems to like seeds and hay. You might even feel disappointed that your gerbil isn’t open to trying something new and fun.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that gerbils have unique personalities, just like people. Some will enjoy being held, while others may never grow used to it. Some gerbils will run on their wheel day in and day out, while others will ignore it.
With time, you’ll learn what your gerbils like and dislike and how to work with, rather than against, those personality traits and preferences.
9. Let your gerbils explore
Consensus: Gerbils should have time to explore outside their habitat.
You might worry that your gerbils will escape if you let them out of their tank or cage. But they tend to stay close to their familiar territory (once they get settled in) and gerbils love to explore. It’s important to expose them to new environments and smells to allow them to engage their brains.
A great option is to set up a pen that you can sit in and let your gerbils run across your lap and legs. Another choice is to place your gerbil tank on a surface with plenty of space, and simply let them come and go out of their enclosure for an hour or two. Make sure to supervise your gerbils closely and protect them from falls, electronics, and air vents or other openings.
Consensus: Gerbils can pick up on your stress and become stressed themselves.
Especially if you’re a brand-new gerbil owner, it’s easy to become stressed and overwhelmed. But your abundance of care for your gerbils can actually backfire, since they’re very empathetic creatures and actually pick up on their owners’ stress levels.
Just remember that owning gerbils should be enjoyable and fun, and it’s not meant to be stress-inducing. Your gerbils may be tiny, but they’re resourceful and tough. You’ll learn over time what your gerbils want and need, and what they’d be better without.
Caring for Gerbils Should Be Fun
It’s easy to read all about gerbils’ needs and preferences and get overwhelmed. But ultimately, you will learn what your gerbil needs and doesn’t need with time.