There are different gerbil species with different diets depending on the availability of certain food sources in their natural environment. However, all gerbils share the same main types of food that they eat. Almost all gerbils are omnivores but mainly feed on seeds, grasses, leaves, and herbs. Mongolian gerbils, the most common pet gerbil, are no exception.
Gerbils feed on the seeds of grasses, roots, bulbs, and leaves in the wild. In captivity, a high-quality and well-balanced gerbil mix should be given. Occasionally treats such as sunflower seeds, fruit, and vegetables can be given. Gerbils should have constant access to drinking water.
Most gerbil owners will give their gerbils a special gerbil mix which contains all nutrients your gerbils need. Your gerbils, under normal circumstances, won’t need any extra vitamins or supplements to stay healthy. To add some variety to the diet you can give treats but only occasionally since most treats are high in sugar and/or fat.
In this article, you’ll learn everything about the gerbil diet. You’ll learn what gerbils eat in captivity, when and how to feed them, and what foods you’ll have to avoid. At the end of this article, you’ll know how to keep your gerbils happy and healthy through their diet.
Nutritional Requirements of Gerbils
Gerbils are very active creatures and need to get enough energy from their food to stay healthy and happy. A good gerbil diet should be balanced and contain all nutrients that your gerbils need (including vitamins and minerals).
A balanced gerbil diet should contain:
- protein: a percentage between 12 and 16 percent is required for gerbils.
- fat (lipids): a fat percentage between 2 and 20 percent is often found in gerbil diets but the general recommendation would be a percentage between 6 and 9 percent.
- vitamins: there has been limited research about the concentrations of fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins that gerbils need. It’s been assumed that the concentrations for rats and mice are also suitable for gerbils.
- minerals: a lack of certain minerals (magnesium and sodium chloride) has been associated with alopecia. A low concentration of magnesium in the diet can even cause higher susceptibility to seizures that are associated with being in a new environment.
The suitable protein and fat percentages of the gerbil food will depend on your gerbils’ age and whether they are used for breeding or not. Breeding females and baby gerbils need to get more protein and fat while older non-breeding gerbils will need less protein and fat.
Guidelines from other sources
Their exact nutritional needs are difficult to determine. To give you an idea of some percentages, I will mention the guidelines from some other sources about gerbils:
Nutritional guidelines according to egerbils
|Gerbils older than 2 years||10-11%||3-5%|
Nutritional guidelines according to Moonstone Gerbils
|Gerbils (<6 months) and pregnant females||16%||7-9%|
|Gerbils older than 2.5 years||10-12%||4-6%|
Nutritional guidelines according to Small Furry Friend
|0 to 6 months||15-18%||8-9%||10-15%|
|6 to 24 months||12-15%||6-7%||8-10%|
|24 months and older||10-12%||3-5%||8-10%|
Conclusion & general nutritional guidelines
Most pet gerbils will eat their basic diet (lab block, pellet food, seed mix) and eat vegetables, herbs, and treats. Micromanaging a diet won’t be easy, and a small difference of only one or two percent seems difficult to calculate.
You need to consider that gerbils will need to be fed a main diet that is low in fiber content, contains between 12 and 16 percent protein, and between 6 and 9 percent fat. Older gerbils will need a diet with less protein and fat. Younger gerbils will need a diet with a protein content of at least 16 percent and a maximum of 20 percent.
High amounts of fat will lead to obesity and increased cholesterol levels. This can lead to heart disease in the long run and female gerbils can even become sterile when they’re fed too much fat.
High amounts of protein (more than 20 percent) can cause liver damage, kidney stones, and skin lesions. However, low amounts of protein (less than 15 percent) can stun young gerbils’ growth.
Balanced Gerbil Diet
A healthy diet is essential for the well-being and lifespan of your gerbils. The main diet (or staple food) of gerbils should consist of either a special gerbil mix, pellet food for gerbils or lab blocks, or a combination of these diets. The main diet will contain all vitamins and minerals that your gerbils need. You can feed fresh vegetables and herbs occasionally.
You can give the occasional treat to your gerbils but will need to limit this because most treats are high in fat and sugar content. This can lead to obesity in your gerbils. Vitamin and mineral supplements are – in general – not needed but can help prevent certain diseases.
A good staple food will form most of your gerbils’ diet and contain all nutrients your gerbils need. For a good staple food, most gerbil owners will choose between:
- lab blocks or pellet food
- commercial or homemade seed mixes
It all depends on your gerbils’ pickiness, but most gerbil owners will give seed mixes to their gerbils or use pellet food combined with a seed mix.
Lab blocks and pellet food
Lab blocks look like large pieces of pellet food. These kinds of blocks are also used to feed laboratory animals and contain all nutrients that your gerbils need and improve your gerbils’ dental health. They don’t look very appealing but are the perfect food when your gerbils are picky eaters.
One of the main advantages of this kind of food is that your gerbil will get all nutrients and can’t be picky eaters. This is often seen with gerbils and other rodents that only eat the things they like and leave the rest to become stale. It’s also one of the disadvantages of seed mixes.
Lab blocks and pellet food do have a disadvantage: you can’t shatter them around the gerbil cage. So, lab blocks and pellet food are not suitable to promote the foraging behavior of gerbils.
Sadly there are not a lot of different lab blocks being explicitly sold for gerbils. Most owners that use lab blocks for gerbils use the ones that are made for mice and rats.
There are smaller pellet foods for gerbils that look like kibble and also contain all nutrients. The smaller pellets can be shattered around the cage to promote foraging.
Seed mixes are, as the name says, a mix of different seeds. All nutrients are combined in the seed mix, but it’s possible that your gerbils won’t eat all seeds and don’t get all the mix nutrients. This is one of the main disadvantages of a seed mix. It’s best to avoid mixes with too many sunflower seeds in them or remove them before giving them.
Seed mixes can be shattered easily around the cage, promoting the natural foraging behavior of gerbils and keeping them busy during the day and night.
Vegetables and herbs
Vegetables can be fed to gerbils but should not be the main diet of pet gerbils. Leafy vegetables such as endive, lettuce, and celery can be given daily but all other kinds of (safe) vegetables should only be given once or twice a week. Giving non-leafy vegetables more than this can lead to digestive problems (including bloating).
Not all vegetables are safe for your gerbil. In the list below you can find good (safe) vegetables and bad vegetables for gerbils. Avoid these bad vegetables at all costs because they can lead to serious health issues and even death.
You can also give fresh or dried herbs and plants to your gerbils. There are a lot of different herbs and plants you can give but the most common fed herbs are dandelion, plantain, and mint.
Some gerbil owners will occasionally give their gerbils fruit. However, your gerbil won’t need to be fed fruit to stay healthy, and giving fruit can sometimes cause health issues. Fruits contain a lot of water and gerbils have only a limited water need.
My recommendation would be to refrain from giving fruit to your pet gerbils or only give it on certain occasions as a treat.
Not all fruit is safe for your gerbil. In the list below you can find good (safe) fruit and bad fruit for gerbils. Avoid these bad fruit at all costs because they can lead to serious health issues and even death.
Vitamins and supplements
Gerbils can develop their own vitamin c and don’t necessarily need it in their diet. Other vitamins and minerals aren’t nutritional but help to keep your gerbils healthy.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are available in different forms, such as powder, but are in most cases, already available in sufficient amounts in the special gerbil mixes. In short, you don’t need supplements unless in some rare cases.
Everybody loves to get some treats from time to time and gerbils are no exception to this. But gerbils, just like many other pet rodents, are given too much treats way too often. Since gerbils can get sick from too much fat and protein, it’s important to limit the number of treats you give and provide healthy treats.
There are prepared snacks and snack packs available for gerbils in pet stores and online. These snacks are often less healthy as natural products, but if you don’t overdo on treats you can give them once a week.
If you want to give healthier treats, you still have a wide range of treats to provide:
- plants & herbs
- scrambled or boiled eggs
- unsweetened breakfast cereal
Gerbils love to chew on seeds and eat them, which is why a nutritional seed mix is a staple diet for gerbils. However, you can also give seeds to your gerbils as a treat.
Not all seeds are safe for your gerbil. In the list below, you can find good (safe) seeds and bad seeds for gerbils. Avoid these bad seeds at all costs because they can lead to serious health issues and even death.
Gerbils can also be fed nuts but be careful not to give too many nuts as they’re high in fat content like some seeds.
Not all nuts are safe for your gerbil. In the list below, you can find good (safe) nuts and bad nuts for gerbils. Avoid these bad nuts at all costs because they can lead to serious health issues.
Animals usually lose the enzymes that are required to digest milk after weaning. Most adult animals don’t consume milk and are lactose intolerant, which means they can’t properly digest milk (products). You can give some dairy products on (rare) occasions and in small amounts:
- yogurt: plain and sugar-free yogurt can be safe in small amounts because of the low amount of lactose.
- eggs: raw eggs should be avoided but boiled or scrambled eggs can be given to gerbils especially when breeding.
- cheese: cheese is very nutritional and is low in lactose but it’s a product that is high in fat. Only feed it on rare occasions as a treat.
Sweetened breakfast cereal
Breakfast cereals are made for humans and even from a human perspective, they contain too much sugar. Don’t give any (sweetened) breakfast cereals to your gerbils as this will hurt your gerbils’ health.
Food that contains caffeine/theobromine
Caffeine is part of our lifestyle and can be found in many products, most of which are drinks. Chocolate also contains a compound called theobromine, which is related to caffeine.
Caffeine and theobromine are dangerous for small and large pets. Don’t give any foods or drinks that contain these compounds as it will lead to poisoning very fast.
Food that contains artificial coloring
Most artificial coloring won’t cause a lot of problems for your gerbils. However, some research says that the compounds used for artificial coloring can cause kidney problems and other diseases. Since the artificial colors are only used to pleasure the gerbil owner and don’t have any other use, it’s best to avoid such foods.
Fruit seeds and pits
The seeds of certain fruit contain small amounts of cyanide. The cyanide is found in the seeds and pits and poses little problems to most pets because they don’t eat the seeds and pits and don’t gnaw them open. But gerbils are known for chewing on seeds and pits and are thus at a high risk of ingesting the cyanide. Only give seeds that are safe (see the list above).
Avocado is considered poisonous to a lot of mammals and birds. According to the Merck Manual, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and rats are susceptible. The problematic compound in the avocado is persin which can cause serious health issues and even death.
Garlic, onion, chives, and leeks, and other foods from the Allium family are, depending on the amount, toxic for small pets. Never give any of these foods to your gerbils!
Rhubarb contains oxalic acid and oxalate salts and is considered dangerous for small pets. In large enough quantities, it can even lead to the poisoning of your gerbil. For this reason, it’s best to stay away from giving rhubarb and rhubarb leaves altogether.
Gerbils in the wild live in a quite arid environment and can go for extended periods without water. But in captivity, it’s advised to give your gerbils access to fresh water at all times. A single gerbil will drink up to 150 ml per month (around 5 ml daily) depending on the age, temperature and exercise levels.
You have two options to give water to your gerbils: a water bottle or a water dish.
I would recommend that you use a water bottle and attach it to the outside of the cage or tank. This way, your gerbils can’t chew on the bottle and it doesn’t take away the cage’s flooring area. Plastic water bottles with metal sipper are appropriate and easy to clean but are less hygienic than glass water bottles. There are even options to attach a water bottle to a tank or gerbilarium.
Water dishes are also available online and in stores but are not a good way to give your gerbils water. The dishes can be tipped over if they’re not heavy enough and eventually the dish will be filled with substrate, feces, and urine. From a hygienic viewpoint, water dishes are not a good option. This is why I would recommend a water bottle over a dish at any time.
Gerbil Feeding Schedule
Gerbils are crepuscular creatures in nature and will forage and feed in the morning and evening. To mimic this natural feeding schedule it’s recommended to feed your gerbils each day in the morning and/or evening to keep them busy.
Create a certain routine and try to stick to it as much as possible. You can find an entire feeding schedule for your gerbils below.
- staple food (lab blocks/pellet food/seed mix): give one tablespoon (between 10 and 15 grams) of your choice of staple food per gerbil each day. You can give all of it in the morning or evening or choose to divide it between the morning and evening. Place the lab block/pellet food in a ceramic bowl or scatter the seed mix around to promote foraging. You can also try to hide the food so your gerbils can try to find it.
- fresh leafy vegetables and dried herbs: slice the vegetables into small pieces and give only a few pieces in a ceramic bowl. Remove the remaining pieces the next day.
- water: water should be available to your gerbils at all times even though they don’t drink that much.
Occasionally (once or twice a week)
- other vegetables
- non-citrus fruit
- fresh herbs and grass
- seeds and nuts
- mealworms or crickets
- other treats
- dairy products (except for yogurt, cheese, eggs)
- “bad” fruit, vegetables, seeds, and nuts
- uncooked eggs
- uncooked rice
- sweetened breakfast cereal
- garlic, onion, chives, and leeks
Transition to a New Gerbil Food
It’s possible that you need to make some dietary changes and change the staple food for your gerbils or change the brand of gerbil food you give. You’ll need to make a gentle transition from the old diet to the new diet or else your gerbil can get sick. This transition consists of a four-week plan:
- first week: during the first week you should feed a quarter portion new diet and a three-quarters portion of the old diet.
- second week: during the second week you should feed a portion that consists of half the new diet and half the old diet.
- third week: during the third week you should feed a portion that consists of three-quarters of the new diet and a quarter portion of the old diet.
- fourth week: starting from the fourth week you can feed a full portion of the new diet.
Gerbils love foraging and it’s best to scatter a bit of food around the cage for them to look for and keep them busy. However, even though gerbils love foraging and don’t need a food bowl, I recommend using one. You can use it to give pellet food and seed mixes but also for giving small treats.
You should use a heavy ceramic food bowl that can’t be flipped over. Also, take into account that gerbils are small animals and don’t eat that much. You can find decent food bowls at local pet stores or online.
If you’re looking for a good and nice-looking bowl I would recommend the OMEM ceramic food bowl that comes in different versions. If you’re looking for a bowl that is a bit larger (for example if you’ve got a lot of gerbils) I would recommend the Kaytee PetWare bowl or several OMEM bowls.
Gerbils don’t need to drink a lot, but they need to be given fresh water daily. Gerbils don’t need huge water bottles, so a water bottle between 3 and 6 oz. will usually be sufficient depending on the number of gerbils you house.
My preference usually goes to a glass water bottle and if you use a partial wire cage you can easily use one. My recommendation for a good glass water bottle for gerbils is the Living World Eco + Water Bottle.
If you house your gerbils in a gerbilarium or tank (which is recommended), you’ll need to be able to attach the water bottle to the glass (without drilling holes in it). You can do so by either using velcro or by using magnets. The Oasis Water Bottle has a holder that can be used with these methods.
If you don’t want to use velcro or magnets, you can also use a water bottle with a holder with suction cups. This recommended product from Critterville is both suitable for glass tanks and wire cages.
Not one water bottle is without fault and it’s always possible that there are manufacturing problems that cause for example dripping. Check your water bottle daily to make sure that your gerbils can drink from it and that there’s enough water available to them.
Many people own and breed pet gerbils, and, like with all things, there are sometimes different views on what is a good brand of food and what isn’t. Below you’ll find a list of my recommended staple food and treats.
It’s entirely possible that your gerbil doesn’t like a certain brand of food as gerbils are known to be picky eaters. I’m always interested in learning about new products so if you know about other good food or treats you can let me know by contacting me.
Staple food for gerbils
As I already mentioned, gerbils are foragers and will often empty their food bowl. It’s best to provide a seed mix or a combination of pellet food and a seed mix to your pet gerbils.
Most gerbil owners will give seed mixes and seed mixes are also the most available as gerbil food. However, if your gerbils seem to be picky eaters and don’t eat all seeds (but only pick out the delicious ones), you can give pellet food that contains all nutrients in each pellet.
In either case, you want to give a staple food that contains the right percentages of proteins, fat, and fiber and is nutritional for your gerbils. Below are my recommended staple foods.
Recommended pellet food
- All Living Things The Power of 5 Hamster & Gerbil Diet
Recommended seed mixes
- Versele-Laga Nature Gerbil Food
- Supreme Petfoods Tiny Friends Farm Gerri Gerbil Food
- Sunseed Vita Hamster & Gerbil Diet
- Higgins Sunburst Gourmet Blend
- Brown’s Natural Tropical Carnival Gourmet Food
Hay for gerbils
Contrary to some other pet rodent, hay doesn’t play an important role in the diet of wild and pet gerbils. Gerbils will chew on hay and have something to do while doing so, but they don’t necessarily need it to stay healthy. Gerbils do use hay to mix it with bedding and to create stable tunnels.
Treats for gerbils
As I already mentioned, you can give healthy snacks to your gerbils found in nature or supermarkets. If you’re looking for ready-to-go snacks for your gerbils, I would recommend the following snacks:
- Kaytee Fiesta Veggie Cranberry Treat Stick
- Kaytee Fiesta Strawberry Yogurt Chips
- Rosewood Pet 1 Pouch Nature’S Salad
- Fluker’s Freeze-Dried Mealworms
Only give small amounts of treats and only occasionally. Treats should only make up around 5 percent of the entire diet. This means that you can give treats such as the ones I mentioned above once a week. However, you can feed vegetables, fruits, plants, and herbs more.
It’s recommended for new gerbil owners to stick with a commercial gerbil pellet food or seed mix and only give small amounts of fruit, vegetables, plants, and herbs around three times a week.
Tips and Tricks
Now that you know about everything there is to know about the gerbil diet, I’ll give you 5 super practical tips and tricks for giving food and water to your gerbils:
- place the food bowl in a corner, away from the toilet area: gerbils don’t like to eat near their toilet area so it’s best to place the bowl in a different place.
- remove uneaten food before you feed again: it’s possible that your gerbils don’t eat everything in their bowl or cage (if scattered). Make sure to remove all uneaten food before the next feeding. Otherwise, the food (especially fruit and vegetables) can get bad.
- freeze bags of seed mixes opening them: seed mixes – even commercial ones – can contain (insect) eggs that can become a little plague very fast. You can kill the eggs by putting the bag in a freezer overnight before opening and using it.
- check the gerbil cage and substrate/bedding for signs of hoarding: gerbils in the wild can hoard up to 1.5 kg of food and hoarding is often a problem for pet gerbils too. Check the cage for stored food and remove it. Otherwise, it can go stale or bad and cause a bad-smelling cage.
- keep an eye on the food and water consumption: make sure that your gerbils eat and drink enough. If your gerbil isn’t drinking (enough) it can be caused by a broken water bottle. Lack of appetite can also be a sign of health issues.
Can gerbils eat processed food?
Most gerbils are omnivorous and can eat both plants and meat. However, gerbils shouldn’t be fed processed food that was cooked, baked, or otherwise processed. Certain processed foods also have a very low nutritional value and won’t give your gerbils the vitamins and minerals they need.
Can gerbils eat hamster food?
Hamsters and gerbils have different nutritional needs. Commercial hamster seed mixes are often also directed at gerbils. However, most hamster mixes contain fatty seeds that aren’t suitable for the main gerbil diet. It’s best to feed your gerbil a special gerbil mix that suits their specific needs.
Can gerbils eat grass?
Wild gerbils will eat grasses but in captivity the best alternative is to give hay as it provides a way to chew and wear down the teeth. Never feed grass from a yard as these are often sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers and are dangerous for your gerbils to eat.
Can gerbils eat insects?
Gerbils are omnivorous and can eat insects but only occasionally. Most insects are a good source of protein and fat. However, most gerbil owners won’t give insects but those that do will give mealworms, which contain 15 percent fat and 20 percent protein.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets (or other pocket pets), please read the following articles: