Gerbils are among the more active pets you can get. They love running around and need plenty of space to do so. Therefore, most gerbil owners want to give their gerbils the possibility to be as active as they would be in nature. The most common product for this is an exercise wheel. But do gerbils need a running wheel?
Exercise wheels are a popular accessory in hamster and gerbil cages. Unfortunately, most wheels are made from plastic and aren’t suitable for chew-loving gerbils. It can sometimes be challenging to get the proper exercise wheel for your gerbils, and even when you get the right one, there’s still a risk that problems might arise.
Why Does a Gerbil Need a Wheel?
Gerbils have a reasonably large territory in the wild and are very active creatures. They love to dig tunnels, but they also love running around and foraging for food. In the wild, gerbils will also use their running skills to escape predators.
A pet gerbil will need to get the same activity to stay healthy and stress-free. You can do a lot to assure that your gerbils remain 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 give 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.
- provide playtime outside of the cage: a playpen outside of 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 of the cage.
Even if you provide these activities to your gerbils, a running wheel can still have benefits. Some gerbils like to run on the wheel and it gives a perfect exercise for them. In addition, running on the wheel can keep your gerbil healthy and can extend its lifespan.
What Kind of Wheel Is Suitable for Gerbils?
Not all exercise wheels are suitable for gerbils. A perfect wheel for gerbils should:
- be made from the right material
- be large enough for a gerbil
- have a suitable running surface
Plastic, wood, or metal wheels
Most running wheels are made from plastic and while these can be good for hamsters, they’re not suitable for gerbils. Gerbils love to chew on everything they can get their paws on, including their wheels. But ingesting plastic can be dangerous for your gerbils.
A better choice is to pick a running wheel that’s made from wood or metal. A wooden wheel can be chewed on and can be replaced if necessary. A metal wheel is chew-proof but can make more noise. You could also opt for chew-proof plastic wheels if these are available in your area.
Hamster wheels are too small for gerbils and should never be used. Your gerbils need larger wheels that are at least 8″ (20 cm) in diameter. It’s possible that your gerbils need even larger wheels with a diameter of 25 cm (10″). The wheel should allow your gerbils to run at a comfortable angle with an (almost) straight back.
When you’re thinking of a running wheel, you imagine a metal wheel with rungs and gaps between them. These kinds of wheels used to be very popular but are dangerous for pets. For example, your gerbils can get bumblefoot (painful sores) from walking on mesh and can get it by running on such wheels.
Another risk with rungs is that your gerbil’s tail can get caught between the rungs. If the tail gets caught between them, it can cause pain and even infection. Since you want to provide the best care for your gerbils, you don’t want to let this happen.
Instead of wheels with bare rungs and gaps, choose a wheel with a solid running surface without gaps between the rungs.
Risk Associated With Running Wheels
If you choose a large wooden or metal running wheel with a solid surface, there’s no risk that your gerbils will get their tails entangled or stuck between the rungs and there’s no risk that they will ingest plastic.
You do have to understand that there’s an inherent risk with running wheels:
- your gerbils can become obsessed with running on them
- running (for a long time) can sometimes cause sores
- they can cause “wheel tail”
Running on a wheel is repetitive and does seem without an actual function or goal. But gerbils do run on wheels, and their motivation to do so is still not fully understood.
Although most gerbils will use the running wheel each day for a short time, your gerbil may show stereotypical behavior.
An example is the obsessive digging of the cage floor. This is often associated with a lack of a deep layer of bedding. Another stereotypical behavior can consist of obsessive running for a long time on the wheel.
Sores on feet
Some gerbil owners have noted that running on a wheel can cause sores on the feet, even when there’s a solid surface and no gaps between the rungs. Some might even notice blood on the wheel.
The sores come from excessive running and the friction this causes. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do about it. You can change the running wheel or limit access to the wheel. For example, keep the wheel in the cage in the evening and take it out at night. Place it back the following day in the evening.
A wheel tail can happen to gerbils when they run in a running wheel that isn’t large enough. Your gerbil will not have a straight tail while running but will bend it over its back.
This “wheel tail” will prevent the tail from dragging on the wheel and causing pain. However, a wheel tail is to be absolutely avoided. If you notice this, it’s best to get a larger wheel (up to 12″) or get a flying saucer (running disk).
Best Wheels for Gerbils
Gerbils should be given a wooden or metal running wheel with a solid surface and a diameter of at least 20 cm (8″). This means that there are only a few products that are suitable for gerbils.
Based on different criteria (size, durability, material, price), I recommend the following wheels for your gerbils. You should read our review page for a full review of the best wheels.
Sadly, metal wheels with a stand are more difficult to find in certain areas.
If you want a plastic running wheel (and your gerbils aren’t likely to chew on it), you can get the Exotic Nutrition Silent Runner. This is a running wheel with a 12″ diameter that is mostly made of plastic. But, again, your gerbils may chew on it. Otherwise, it would make a perfect running wheel.
You can also give your gerbils a metal or wooden flying saucer (running disc). My gerbils love these more than a running wheel. A reliable metal flying saucer is the Exotic Nutrition Treadmill Wheel.
Can gerbils live without a wheel?
Gerbils can live without a wheel if you provide enough other ways to stay active and run. For example, you can give a flying saucer (running disc) or let them use a large playpen outside of their cage daily for at least 30 minutes.
Do 2 gerbils need 2 wheels?
Two gerbils don’t need two wheels (one is enough). You can place 1 wheel in their cage and they will share it. It’s also possible that they will use it simultaneously. If you have more than 2 gerbils in one large cage, you want to consider 2 wheels so all gerbils can spend time running on a wheel.
Are plastic wheels OK for gerbils?
Plastic wheels are not suitable for gerbils. Gerbils are known for being avid chewers and they will try chewing on a plastic wheel. They can ingest tiny pieces of plastic while doing so, which is a serious health risk. The only exception is a chew-proof plastic wheel, which reduces the risk.
Can gerbils run on flying saucers?
Gerbils can use flying saucers to run on. These alternatives to running wheels are better at preventing a so-called wheel tail. Flying saucers should be made of metal or chew-proof plastic. They should also have a large enough diameter, similar to that of running wheels.
Can gerbils run in a ball?
Gerbils can use balls but would rather just explore their environment with their own senses. Gerbils have only a limited sight and can bump or crash into furniture with the balls (causing stress). If you do get a ball, get a large one. See if your gerbils like using it and always be in the vicinity.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets, please read the following articles: