Do Gerbils Need Baths? (How Gerbils Keep Themselves Clean)
Gerbils are almost odorless pets but they still need to clean themselves. Some pets need to be bathed in water to stay clean and smell-free. But gerbils are from arid regions and don’t have access to water in the wild. So, do gerbils need baths?
Gerbils should have access to a sand bath at least once a week to keep their fur clean. A sand bath removes dirt and excess oils from the skin, which can prevent bacterial infections. Never give your gerbil a water bath. You can spot-clean your gerbil with a bit of water if this is necessary.
As you can see, gerbils are fairly easy to bath and don’t need a water bath like some other pets. You only need to provide a sand bath once a week and they will clean themselves. However, there are also some precautions you need to take when giving a sand bath. And more important, a sand bath is not to be confused with a dust bath, which is often given to chinchillas.
In this article, you’ll learn how to properly keep your gerbils clean and healthy. You’ll learn about giving sand baths to them and why you need to stay away from bathing your gerbils in water or dust.
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Why Do Gerbils Need Sand Baths?
Gerbils have evolved in arid regions with little water to their disposition. They have a way of cleaning themselves with the sandy soil in their natural habitat. But why do gerbils need sand baths?
Gerbils possess a Harderian gland that secretes porphyrins, a chemical compound, which acts as a pheromone and helps in regulating the body temperature.
A gerbil will mix the porphyrins with saliva when it grooms itself. When it’s cold, the mix helps with protecting the gerbil from the cold (insulation). When it’s hot, the gerbil will use its saliva to cool down and will take a sand bath to remove the excess oils.
How to Give a Gerbil a Sand Bath?
Giving a gerbil a sand bath isn’t difficult and you can’t compare it with bathing a pet in water, like bathing a dog. You only need a few accessories: a bath (bowl, container,…) and special sand. The following step-by-step guide is just an easy explanation on how to give the sand bath.
Step-by-step guide for giving sand bath to gerbils
Fill a small glass or ceramic bowl with sand
The bowl should be large enough so your gerbils can stand up and roll in the sand. Make sure that there’s at least 2.5 cm (1″) sand in the bowl. You can also sterilize the sand, but this is not always necessary.
Place the bowl (sand bath) in the gerbil cage
Place the sand bath in an easily accessible place in the cage. You can make it accessible with a ramp or ladder. Place it so it can’t tip over and that your gerbils can get in and out without a problem.
Leave the bowl (sand bath) in the cage for 5 to 20 minutes
Your gerbils don’t need a lot of time to bath but make sure that they do take a bath. Some might not bath and just pee or poop in it. If you opt for a permanent sand bath you don’t need to remove the bath. Otherwise, remove it after 20 minutes.
Remove the bowl (sand bath) and clean it
A temporary sand bath should be taken out of the cage. You can sift the sand and reuse the clean sand (after sterilizing it) or you can just use fresh sand the next time. Clean the entire bowl with a pet-safe detergent.
You should never “help” your gerbil with his sand bath. By helping I mean that you pour sand over your gerbil. Your gerbils won’t like it and they can perfectly clean themselves by rolling in the sand.
What sand can you use for a sand bath?
There are several types of sand that you can use to give your gerbils a sand bath. The most popular choice is chinchilla sand or similar sand that is made for bathing small pets. You should never give (chinchilla) dust to gerbils. The best sand doesn’t contain silica and is free of dyes.
Most commercial sand that’s targeted at bathing chinchillas, hamsters, and gerbils contain one of the following compounds or is labeled as:
- volcanic pumice
When you look around on forums and watch the reviews of different sands, dust, or powders, you’ll notice that there’s little agreement on the right kind of sand to use for a sand bath for gerbils.
Most people will advise against giving (chinchilla) dust or powder because these can cause respiratory problems in small pets like gerbils and hamsters. Some even say it caused the death of their hamsters.
Products that contain silica or calcium are generally not recommended:
- dust or airborne silica can lead to cancer and other health issues in humans. Inhalation by small pets like gerbils is also thought to be the cause of health issues, primarily respiratory problems.
- calcium sand can become a problem when it’s ingested and it is also usually more dusty in nature.
Sepiolite is a soft clay mineral and some argue that it isn’t suitable for use as sand in a sand bath.
Aragonite (calcium carbonate) and sterilized play sand are considered by many to be the safest choice to use in a sand bath for gerbils. Some say that quartz sand is also safe to use. In either case, make sure that your gerbils don’t ingest the sand.
Although there’s some discussion on the kind of sand you can use for gerbils, you should never use:
- builder’s sand
- beach sand
- kinetic (play) sand
What kind of bath can you use for a sand bath?
The bath should be made of ceramic or glass. If you choose a plastic bath your gerbils will chew on it. The bath should have a flat base, should be large enough (15 cm / 5.9″ in diameter), have sides to keep the sand in, and have a large opening so your gerbil can get in and out without a problem.
There are a lot of different objects that can be used to create a bath for your gerbils. The most common options are:
- glass jars, like a glass candy or cookie jar
- ceramic feeding bowls
- plastic containers (only for temporary use)
You can also buy special sand baths in pet stores but these are often made of plastic and are more expensive than a regular glass jar. My recommendation would be to use a glass candy jar, which is large enough and is perfect for gerbils.
Should you give a temporary or permanent sand bath?
If you want to limit the risk of your gerbils getting respiratory problems you might just want to give a sand bath once or twice a week. However, in their natural habitat, gerbils have the possibility to take a sand bath whenever they want.
The possible long term effects of a permanent sand bath aren’t sure but a lot of owners place sand bath permanently in their gerbil cage. So, the choice is really up to you.
Do Gerbils Need Water Baths?
Mongolian gerbils, like other gerbil species, originate from arid regions where there is little rainfall. In their natural habitat, gerbils won’t have reliable access to water and can’t clean themselves with water. Instead, they’ve evolved to use sand to clean their fur and remove excess oils.
This means that you should never bath gerbils in water. A water bath only has downsides. It can, for example, cause:
- overproduction of oils: the removal of skin and hair oils with water can result in excessive secretion of oils from the glands of your gerbil. This can cause irritated skin and bacterial infections.
- stress: gerbils can swim but they aren’t used to it (and don’t swim in their natural habitat). Placing your gerbils in a water bath will cause stress. They will try to swim to safety and won’t like being held in the water. As you probably know, stress can cause health issues in gerbils and seizures are one of the most notable issues related to stress.
- respiratory problems: exposure to water can mess up the thermoregulation of the gerbil’s coat and can lead to pneumonia.
If a sand bath doesn’t clean the fur of your gerbils, you can spot-clean the fur and remove dirt from it. However, you should not give a water bath. Use a slightly damp and unscented (chemical-free) tissue or baby wipe and wipe in the direction of the hair follicles. Don’t rub too hard and try to remove the dirt in a short time span.
As I already mentioned, the best bath for gerbils is cheap and simple. A glass jar, ceramic bowl, or even a litter box with high sides, can be used. What’s more important is to choose safe sand for your gerbils.
I would recommend the following products, depending on the availability in your region:
- Calcean BAHA Natural Play Sand
- Beaphar Xtra Vital Gerbil Bath Sand/Bathing
- Zoo Med ReptiSand
- Kaytee Chinchilla Bath Sand
These are just my recommendations. It’s possible that your gerbils have fewer issues with more dusty sand. Some will totally avoid chinchilla sand (and dust) while others have found that chinchilla sand can be given without problems.
Why do gerbils need sand baths?
Gerbils need to get a regular sand bath to keep their fur dirt-free and remove excess oil. The sand bath helps clean the gerbil and will reduce the risk of bacterial infections. If you don’t give a sand bath your gerbils will also use their scent marking more, which can cause more smells.
Is play sand safe for gerbils?
Sterilized play sand is safe to use with gerbils. Many gerbil owners have kept gerbils with a sand bath with play sand. Don’t use dyed play sand or kinetic play sand. The best play sand for gerbils is dust free and is so-called aragonite sand (silica-free).
How often should I give my gerbil a dust or sand bath?
Gerbils should be given a sand bath at least once a week. If possible, you can keep the sand bath permanently in the cage. This will often lead to your gerbils also using it as a toilet. If you keep a permanent sand bath in the cage, spot-clean it daily. Never use a dust bath with fine dust.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets (or want to learn about other pocket pets), please read the following articles:
If you’re interested in getting gerbils as pets you should also definitely read our beginner’s guide to keeping gerbils as pets and our gerbil care guide.