A lot of rodents have very sharp teeth that continue to grow throughout their life. The gerbil is no exception to this. They got very large and sharp teeth and you or your children might be afraid of a gerbil bite. But do gerbils bite and does it hurt?
Gerbils are friendly animals that generally won’t resort to biting unless they feel threatened and have no way out. A gerbil might give you a little nip but this doesn’t really hurt or break the skin. It’s only in rare cases that a gerbil will bite hard and such a bite can hurt and cause an injury.
Gerbils are really friendly and social animals. Although they can be aggressive towards other gerbils, they will rarely really fight. They will make noises and bark to warn others. In rare cases, gerbils will fight each other and bite, mostly to show dominance and establish a hierarchy.
But it’s entirely possible for any pet that has teeth, including the gerbil, to bite for a number of reasons. It’s really important to get to know the reasons why a gerbil might bite and learn the warning signs.
In this article, you’ll learn the reasons for a gerbil to bite, what the signs are that you have to back off, and more importantly what you’ll need to do when you do get bitten.
The Gerbil Bite
Why does a gerbil bite?
Gerbils are prey animals that have little real defense mechanisms against their predators. In the wild, they will often just run away from a confrontation and hide in their burrow.
So, they aren’t dependent on their fighting skills to defend themselves from predators but rather use their speed and small size to escape and evade predators.
But your gerbil doesn’t have a lot of room to hide and run away in a caged environment. It’s not entirely surprising that a gerbil bites when you suddenly grab him – even if your intentions are not bad.
Common reasons for a gerbil bite
There might be a lot of different psychological reasons why your gerbil bites you, but the most common reasons are really straightforward:
- scared: if you reach for your gerbil from above the gerbils’ instinct takes over and thinks it’s a bird of prey trying to catch it. Your gerbil doesn’t have another way to escape except by squirming and trying to get loose, or by trying to bite. It’s also possible for your gerbil to get scared by loud noises when you handle it (either by you talking too loud or by other loud noises like music or television).
- stress: a stressed gerbil doesn’t feel well and won’t like to be handled. If you notice signs of stress don’t try to pick up your gerbil. Just let it calm down and try again at a later moment when your gerbil is calm and stress-free. The stress can be caused by different factors like too frequent handling or a sick gerbil that just wants to rest.
- unfamiliar environment: this one is usually associated with a scared and/or stressed gerbil. When you bring your gerbil home it will need some time to adjust to its new environment. Wait a couple of days and get your gerbil used to you and its environment, before trying to handle it.
The chance that you get bitten by a newly bought gerbil is higher than the chance that you get bitten by a gerbil that’s being in the family for years. This is entirely normal because they have to adjust to the new environment, which may cause stress. They’ll also need to adjust to you as a new person and might be scared.
If you bond with your gerbil and take the time to get to know your gerbil , the chance of you getting bitten will be minimal!
Accidental bites when breaking up a gerbil fight
Gerbils don’t like to live alone and are real group animals. They form groups that usually consist of a pair and their offspring. As with other animals that live in groups, like the degu, there are sometimes fight for dominance and to establish a hierarchy.
During these fights, it can get really serious. When you try to break up this fight with just your hands and without protection, it’s possible that you get (accidentally) bitten by your gerbil(s). In such cases, the bites can be deep and bleed.
Nipping and curiosity bites
A gerbil that wants to be left alone and feels a bit annoyed with you can take a nip at your finger. This can be a sign that you touch your gerbil in the wrong place or that it wants to be handled less frequently. These nips won’t hurt you as much as real bites but can still hurt.
Another kind of bite that might hurt is the bite when your gerbil smells something good on your finger. A gerbil is a curious animal and might bite your finger in such a case. So always wash your hands before handling a gerbil.
How to read the warning signs?
A gerbil bite rarely comes all of a sudden. Even when a gerbil is aggressive there will be some form of a warning sign. Gerbils use non-verbal communication to signal that they want to be left alone or feel endangered.
If you want to prevent a bite you’ll need to learn the warning signs. When you know to interpret these signs you can know what your gerbil is feeling and when it’s best to leave your gerbil alone.
Gerbils usually don’t make that much sounds, especially when they’re adults. Baby gerbils will use more squeaks than adults. If your gerbil is making a lot of sounds it can be a sign of stress. The following vocalizations are an example of this:
- loud squeaks: a loud squeak usually is a kind of warning and can be a sign of a stressed gerbil when your (adult) gerbil is constantly squeaking.
- teeth chattering: a stressed gerbil will usually use chatter its teeth.
You can also notice the following body language as a potential warning sign:
- running away: a frightened or scared gerbil will try to find an escape route. In a caged environment, such an escape route is not available so they will find a corner so they can see the danger coming. If possible, they will run back to their nest box or another hiding place.
- standing straight up with folded front paws: a frightened gerbil will stand straight in an almost frozen position with its front paws folded together (this will look like a “praying” gerbil)
- pushing with the head: gerbils that are annoyed with another gerbil or with you will push with their head. If your gerbil pushes your hand away with its head this is a sign that it wants to be left alone.
Does a gerbil bite hurt?
You’ve taken all precautions and made sure that there are no warning signs that your gerbil is frightened or stressed. But suddenly your gerbil takes a bite anyway. If you’re already bitten you will know the degree of pain it causes. But if you’re lucky enough of not getting bitten, you might want to know what kind of pain you need to be expecting.
Pain is a subjective feeling and some people have a low pain threshold while others have a high threshold. It’s difficult to say if the bite will hurt in your individual case. A lot will also depend on the kind of bite.
You have to make a distinction between a nip and a real bite. A frightened, stressed or endangered gerbil can bite hard and break the skin. A nip is a way of showing that your gerbil wants to be left alone and doesn’t hurt as much as a real bite. When your gerbil does take a real bite it might hurt and might even bleed (heavily).
How to Prevent Biting (Tips and Tricks)
You can prevent a gerbil from biting you by making sure that it’s happy, without stress, and without health issues. You can never prevent a bite with 100 percent certainty. The following tips and tricks can help you to prevent a gerbil bite and have a higher chance of staying bite-free.
Before you handle your gerbil
Make sure that your gerbil is aware of your presence and knows you’re going to come in the cage with your hand. Avoid any sudden movements as this can frighten your gerbil. If you just got a new gerbil, you should first sit next to the cage for a couple of minutes each day and talk in a calm manner. This way your gerbil will get used to your presence and voice.
Always wash your hands before handling it. Gerbils are sensitive to smells and might get stressed when you still got the smell of another pet on your hands. They can also take a nip in your hands when they smell like something good, for example, their favorite food. So, always wash your hands before you handle your gerbil to wash away these kinds of foreign smells.
Handling your gerbil
Gerbils are curious animals and it’s best to let them make the first move when it comes to handling. When they’re comfortable with you they will come over and sniff your hand. When you and your gerbil are fine with each other you can even try to pet it. As your gerbil gets used to you it will eventually come up to your hand and you can then pick it up.
You can also pick up a gerbil by creating a cup with your hands. In no case should you reach your gerbil from above. Gerbils are prey animals that are prey to predator birds. If you approach the gerbil from above your gerbils’ instinct takes over and in defense, it might bite.
When you first handle your gerbil you might be afraid that it will jump away and fall. This sometimes causes you to hold a tight grip on your gerbil. This should absolutely be avoided. You should hold your gerbil in a way that prevents a fall but you don’t want to hold it too tightly. Such a tight hold is the same as the grabbing of a bird of prey in the mind of your gerbil.
Extra tips and tricks
Besides the tips I mentioned above you can also use the following tips to prevent a gerbil bite:
- avoid loud noises when handling your gerbil: loud noises can scare your gerbil and to avoid a bite it’s best to talk in a calm manner and to avoid loud noises in the vicinity like a television or loud music.
- don’t reach for your gerbil while it’s in a hideaway: if your gerbil is hiding in its house or hideaway it usually doesn’t have any other escape route. Don’t put your hand in the hideaway as this might frighten the gerbil even more and cause it to bite.
- use leather gloves when you’re afraid of bites: some people recommend using thick leather gloves when first handling a new gerbil. This can be a way to prevent injuries but a gerbil can also see the gloves as a toy to bite in.
- don’t chase around the gerbil in its cage: there’s no point in chasing around your gerbil around the cage or tank. It will become tired, stressed, and annoyed. When you chase around a gerbil it will eventually bite when you try to handle it.
- never try to break up a fight between gerbils (with your hands): a gerbil fight can get nasty and you don’t want to intervene with just your hands. In the confusion and aggression, you’ll have a terribly high chance of getting bitten (very hard).
What to Do When You Get Bitten by Your Gerbil?
When you get bitten you’ll need to make sure that your gerbil knows that this behavior is not ok. Don’t become angry towards your gerbil because this won’t help. The best thing to do is to stay calm and not remove your hand until the gerbil stops biting. Your gerbil can sense your emotion and can react by even becoming more afraid or aggressive when you’re angry or afraid yourself. If you want to prevent future bites it’s best to show that biting doesn’t work.
So, how do you react and stop the biting?
You should avoid making loud noises (yelling or screaming) at all cost since this can cause your gerbil to bite even harder. And you should definitely not wave with your hand around with a gerbil on it. This will cause the gerbil to hold on even more tightly.
Some bites can last only a moment. Most gerbils will stop biting as you put them back on their feet and give them a chance to get back in a safe place, like their cage. When your gerbil doesn’t want to loosen its bite you can try two methods to stop the biting:
- gently tap the nose of your gerbil: tap the nose of the gerbil with your finger. Your gerbil will find this annoying and it’s also a natural way that gerbils communicate with each other that they don’t like something.
- gently blowing in the face: blow a small puff of air in the direction of the face of your gerbil. Gerbils don’t like this and will usually loosen their bite. This method is effective but you should be aware that it can also cause your gerbil to get a seizure. So, only do it when nothing else works.
A gerbil bite can transfer bacteria into the wound. You should treat a gerbil bite the same way you would treat a bite from another animal. This means that you should:
- clean the wound: wash your wound with running warm water to remove bacteria, dirt, hair, or other foreign materials.
- use antibacterial wash: apply an antibacterial ointment or wash with antibacterial soap
- getting a bandage: apply a bandage to the wound to keep it clean
- get a tetanus shot: animal bites that break the skin can cause tetanus infections. So if you didn’t get a tetanus immunization you need to get medical advice and possibly a tetanus shot.
If the wound is deep and very painful, it might not heal properly and you’ll need to seek advice from a medical professional. Severe wounds may need stitches and further antibiotic treatment.
Is a gerbil bite infectious?
The mouth of gerbils contains a lot of different bacteria and a wound can get infected. If the bite causes the skin to break you need to clean it (antibacterial wash) to prevent infections. If you notice redness, swelling, or the formation of pus you should seek the help of a doctor.
What to do when a gerbil stays aggressive?
It’s possible that a gerbil will stay aggressive and bite you no matter what. This can be caused by past experiences or health issues. When your gerbil isn’t sick you can try to promote handling by associating it with positive things. If this doesn’t work you should limit handling to a minimum.
Do fat-tailed gerbils bite?
Fat-tailed gerbils are more docile than Mongolian gerbils. Most owners will indicate that they’re less likely to bite even when they’re in situations where a Mongolian gerbil would. Some even report that wild fat-tailed gerbils won’t bite when grabbed from their burrows.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets, please read the following articles: