Gerbils need to be active to stay healthy and happy. Therefore, a running wheel is essential in almost any gerbil cage. But some gerbil owners also want to let their gerbils explore the environment outside of the cage. A hamster ball is often suggested but do gerbils need hamster balls?
Hamster balls are a controversial topic for gerbils and other small pets, including hamsters. You’ll find many different opinions online and some would avoid them while others find that their gerbils use them without problems.
In my opinion, hamsters balls can be dangerous and stressful for your gerbils. However, if you take safety precautions, limit the number of sessions inside the hamster ball, and limit the time inside, a gerbil can use a ball. Of course, everything depends on your gerbil. Does it like to get in the ball and want to run in it?
What Is a Hamster Ball?
Hamsters balls (also called running balls) are translucent and hollow spheres (balls) that are made of plastic. Some hamster balls are one complete ball with a lid, while you can break others down into two halves that have to be locked to form one ball.
Hamster balls are only a relatively recent invention (around the 1970s) and are available in different sizes and colors. Some balls are suitable for small pets, like dwarf hamsters. Others are suitable for larger pets, like gerbils. All balls have ventilation slits so the pet can get air while it’s inside the ball.
The benefits of hamster balls can be summarized as follows:
- pets can run and spend time outside the cage
- no risk that your pet gets stuck in holes or under furniture
- no risk that your pet gets injured (for example, by chewing on wires)
- pet can’t escape (unless the ball breaks or the lid would come off)
Do Gerbils Need Hamster Balls?
Gerbils have a fairly large territory in the wild and are very active creatures. Not only do they love to dig tunnels, but they also love to run around and forage for food. In the wild, gerbils will also use their running skills to escape from predators.
A pet gerbil will need to get the same activity to stay healthy and free of stress. You can do a lot to assure that your gerbils stay active:
- scatter food around the cage: this mimics the foraging behavior. Your gerbils will look for the food and can spend some time doing so.
- provide a large enough cage: a small cage won’t provide enough running space for your gerbils. It’s recommended for a pair of gerbils to get at least a 20-gallon cage that has 2,500 cm² of floor area and is at least 12″ (30 cm) in height.
- give your gerbils a wheel: a running wheel can give your gerbils the possibility to run at their own pace and when they desire to do so. It’s a perfect alternative for your gerbils to run several miles without getting out of the cage.
- provide playtime outside the cage: a playpen outside the cage can ensure that your gerbils get more space to run around and have fun. If you have the space to provide a playpen you should make sure that the room is gerbil-proof and that you keep an eye on your gerbils while they’re outside the cage.
If your home doesn’t provide the possibility to use a playpen outside of the cage or if you don’t want to risk your gerbils running away, you can use a hamster ball if you use it safely.
Are Hamster Balls Safe for Gerbils?
Although hamster balls can look fun for your gerbils, there are a lot of risks that you definitely should be aware of. The following safety risks are well-known:
- overheating: a hamster ball is made of clear plastic and it can overheat your gerbil very fast when it’s hot weather or when the ball is in direct sunlight for several minutes.
- spinning out of control: the hamster ball’s speed depends on the running speed of your gerbil and the friction of the floor surface. A gerbil that runs (too) fast can cause the ball to spin out of control on a smooth surface. This might cause the ball to crash into furniture, scare your gerbil, or even cause injuries.
- falling off stairs: one of the risks with hamster balls (and the cause of lots of injuries) is that the ball and gerbil reach a stair and fall off the stair. Needless to say that this will cause stress, injuries, and perhaps an escaping gerbil when the ball breaks open.
Can Gerbils Use Hamster Balls?
You can’t use all hamster balls for gerbils. A gerbil is smaller than a hamster but larger than a dwarf hamster. So, small hamster balls for dwarf hamsters won’t be suitable. Instead, you should get a hamster ball that is at least 7″ (18 cm) in diameter so your gerbil can fit in comfortably.
Different views on the use of hamster balls
As I already mentioned, there are a lot of different views on the use of hamster balls by hamsters and other small pets.
An article on PetMD called “Are Hamster Balls Dangerous” suggests that you can use them if the proper precautions are being taken. This is also a view of a lot of gerbil owners: some gerbils like hamster balls and others don’t.
The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the largest animal welfare society in the UK, recommends not using such balls as they’re dangerous and can be stressful for small pets. They’ve got an entire article on this topic, that can be downloaded here.
The same goes for Schweizer Tierschutz STS, the largest and oldest animal welfare organization in Switzerland. In fact, from a general animal welfare viewpoint, there’s a recommendation against using hamster balls.
My personal recommendation is to use other means to keep your gerbils active, such as:
- running wheels
- large gerbil cages with plenty of space
How to use a hamster ball for gerbils?
A lot of gerbils won’t like being picked up and placed in a hamster ball. But they’re curious creatures and will likely want to explore the ball when you place it near them. You can place the ball with the lid open in their cage and wait until one of them crawls in the ball.
You can also get your gerbil used to climbing into the hamster ball by placing it inside the cage with a treat. Never force your gerbil in the ball and never force him to run in the ball. Instead, let your gerbil explore how the hamster ball works. They will learn this very fast.
It’s important only to let your gerbil use a hamster ball when it’s comfortable with it. This means that you should not place your gerbil in the ball:
- when it’s sleeping or just woke up
- just has eaten and has a full stomach
- doesn’t crawl freely in the hamster ball
If your gerbil is in the ball, take it gently out of the cage and place it softly on the floor. Then, let your gerbil explore the room.
If your gerbil doesn’t run (anymore) and stays still, it can be afraid or stressed. If you notice this, it’s not the time to let your gerbil use the ball and you should let your gerbil out of the ball and back inside the cage.
In either case, you should limit your gerbil’s time in a hamster ball to 30 minutes. A reasonable period recommended by brands that sell hamster balls is between 15 and 30 minutes. So start with 15 minutes (unless your gerbil wants out earlier) and add a few minutes each session.
Safety precautions for using a hamster ball
You should only use a hamster ball when you can guarantee the safety of your gerbils. This means that you should take the following precautions:
- get the right ball size: the size of the ball should match the size of the gerbil. Your gerbil should be able to stretch out in the ball and run comfortably at a good angle. Your gerbil won’t like a ball that is too small and it won’t run in it.
- make sure that the ball has enough ventilation: ventilation is crucial to provide your gerbil with enough air. Ensure that there are enough ventilation holes or slits in the ball and that they’re not clogged. Otherwise, your gerbil can overheat or dehydrate.
- keep the ball out of direct sunlight: only use the ball in an area in indirect sunlight and out of the sun. Please don’t use the ball when it’s hot in the room. There’s the same risk of overheating or dehydration if the ball stays in direct sunlight for several minutes.
- only use the ball on carpet or a rough floor: if it’s used on a wooden floor it can get speedy and might bump hard against furniture or walls which may cause stress and injuries
- keep an eye on your gerbils: a gerbil should never be left unsupervised inside a ball. Ensure that you know where your gerbil is and notice the signs your gerbil wants out.
- only use a ball indoors: to avoid falls from the stairs, you should only use the hamster ball indoors in a room with closed doors or an enclosed area. Keep your other pets, like dogs and cats, away from the room.
Attention point for using balls by gerbils
Gerbils love to chew on almost everything. Hamster balls are made from plastic but are round and normally your gerbil won’t be able to chew them into pieces. However, it is possible that your gerbil chews on the lid and can damage it, so you can’t use it anymore. So, always pay attention when your gerbil is in a hamster ball.
Another point of attention is that your gerbil can urinate or poop in the ball. When it runs, this can cause a messy hamster ball. If you notice urine or feces in the hamster ball, take your gerbil out and place it back inside its cage. Clean the ball and disinfect it.
How to Clean a Hamster Ball?
Cleaning a hamster ball isn’t difficult but it’s necessary. You should disassemble the ball and clean it with a pet-safe detergent and disinfectant. Wipe it with water and dry it with a (paper) towel. This will prevent the buildup of dust and bacteria.
If your gerbil urinated or pooped in the ball, you should definitely clean the ball thoroughly to prevent bacteria. Do so with a disinfectant that’s safe to use with pets.
If you choose to get a hamster ball for your gerbils, I recommend getting a large enough, light-colored ball and following the safety directions I mentioned above. Gerbils can use the following hamster balls:
If you’re afraid that your gerbil will bump and crash into furniture, you can also build an exercise loop with the Kaytee Hamtrac Exercise Loop. You can make several of these loops in S-shaped tracks. Unfortunately, the tracks can make it more difficult to run in the ball.
What do gerbils like to play with?
Gerbils like to play with different kinds of objects. Chew toys, like wooden chew toys and toilet rolls, are necessary for gerbils. Your gerbils will also like to play with ladders and other climbing toys. Make sure that the toys are always safe for small pets (not plastic) and don’t splinter.
Can a gerbil play outside?
Gerbils can play outside but only under the right conditions. The temperature and humidity should be ideal for gerbils. More importantly, they should be kept safe from predators. An outdoor hutch or cage can be used to let your gerbils play outside. Always keep an eye on them while they’re outside.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets, please read the following articles: