The gerbil is not one specific animal but is the name for a group of animals that form the subfamily Gerbillinae. There are 110 species of gerbils in 16 different genera. Gerbil species are found in Africa, India, and Asia and are often nicknamed “desert rats” because of their natural habitat.
Although there are 110 different species of gerbils there are only two species that are commonly kept as pets: the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus) and the fat-tailed or Duprasi gerbil (Pachyuromys duprasi). Their generally friendly nature and cute appearance have won the hearts of people around the world, although wild gerbils are often considered pests to farmers.
In this guide, I’ll only discuss the Mongolian gerbil as it’s the most popular kind of pet gerbil around the world. Some species are sometimes kept as pets but often require permits and special care.
Appearance of Mongolian Gerbils
Mongolian gerbils look a bit like mice. They have lean bodies and long tails but are usually found more adorable and less scary than a mouse. Never grab a gerbil by its tail. The gerbil will shed its tail as an instinctive behavior against predators.
As you can see there are some distinct differences in appearance between mice and gerbils. Gerbils have a fluffy tail that’s covered with hair and have feet that are larger than the paws on front. This allows them to run and jump to escape predators. They are also often seen on their hind legs so they can observe their surroundings and notice other gerbils of upcoming danger.
|110 to 135 mm
|95 to 120 mm
|60 to 130 grams
|2 to 5 years
Mongolian gerbils are rodents that originate from the Gobi Desert. Their natural habitat ranges from the southern regions in Mongolia to the northeastern parts of China. This region is characterized by grassland, semideserts, and steppes where the Mongolian gerbils can be found.
The habitat of the Mongolian gerbil is covered with grasses and herbaceous plants, with shrubland. Mongolian gerbils feed primarily on the seeds of these plants and will occasionally feed on insects.
The Gobi Desert has a climate of extremes with dry and extremely cold winters and dry and extremely hot summers. It’s also not uncommon to have extreme temperature changes in a matter of hours. The region receives little rain which leads to an arid environment.
Mongolian gerbils are adapted to these extreme temperatures and the dry environment and are able to live with a minimum of water. They will need little water in captivity and will also urinate less often than other pets.
Behavior of Gerbils
Most gerbil species share great similarities with each other when it comes to behavior. In fact, almost all gerbils are:
- diurnal: they are active during the day and sleep during the night.
- omnivorous: they eat both plant and animal matter (mostly insects) but seem to primarily feed on plant matter such as seeds, grasses, roots, and nuts.
- social animals: since they’re small animals it’s normal that they rely on their group or “clan” to survive in the wild. Gerbils will live in small groups that can consist of up to 20 animals and will fight strangers, sometimes even to death.
The Mongolian gerbil exhibits the same characteristic behavior as other gerbils, although they are considered to be crepuscular. This means that they are active both during the day and night with a rise in activity around dawn and dusk. Your gerbils will go through several cycles of activity and sleep in a time span of 24 hours.
Wild gerbils live in small groups that usually consist of one dominant breeding pair and their offspring. Groups can consist of up to 20 gerbils and form something which is commonly known as a “clan”. When the group gets larger there can be fights for dominance which results in injuries and sometimes death. Usually, the clan will split up and a new clan will be created with another dominant breeding pair.
Group members recognize each other by their smell and not really by physical recognition. This also means that “declanning” can occur when group members are separated from each other and lose the distinctive smell.
The social behavior of gerbils means that you should always keep them in a pair or small group. Even-numbered groups seem to be more suitable and cause fewer problems.
Only in a small number of cases, it can be allowed to keep only one gerbil. The most notable reason for this is when you’ve got an old pair and one of them dies. In such a case it can be better to shower your gerbil with attention (if it likes this) instead of introducing another one.
Gerbils are omnivores and will eat on both animal and plant matter in the wild. The best diet you can give to your gerbils is a combination of lab blocks or pellet food and seed mix. Both food types contain all nutrients that are necessary to keep your gerbil healthy but it’s possible that your gerbils only eat certain seeds from the mix. For this reason, it’s best to combine a pellet food and a seed mix (especially if you notice that your gerbils are picky eaters).
In addition to the main or staple diet, you can give some healthy vegetables and non-citrus fruit to them but only occasionally. Vegetables and fruit often contain a lot of water and can cause diarrhea. Other food like nuts, seeds, and insects can be given as a treat.
Although gerbils don’t drink a lot of water they do need to have access to fresh water at all times.
A good and large enough cage or enclosure is necessary for all pocket pets. Sadly, most cages that are being sold are not large enough. Other cages don’t provide the climbing or burrowing possibilities that the pet needs. As a (prospective) pet owner that wants to give the best care to your gerbils, you’ll need to know about their housing needs.
The cage for a pair of gerbils should have a minimum size of 2,500 cm² (400 sq inches). The height should be at least 30 cm (12″) so your gerbils can stand up. This equals a volume of 20-gallons. For each gerbil in addition you should add around 25 percent to the cage size.
One of the essentials in the cage is a layer of substrate (often called bedding). Gerbils are burrowing pets and love to dig. When they can’t dig they will show behavior where they try to dig (with no result). A thick layer of bedding between 20 cm (8″) and 30 cm (12″) is the minimum.
The most suitable cage is a gerbilarium (vivarium) with ventilation through a screen top. This kind of cage prevents messy situations where substrate and bedding are kicked out of the cage. It’s also the best option to create a deep layer of substrate so your gerbils can create large tunnels.
When you aren’t able to find or create a gerbilarium you’re next best option is a tank with a cage topper. This will provide enough ventilation and is usually capable of creating a layer of 20 cm (8″) substrate. Such type of cage is also the most widely available in stores and online.
A wire or mesh cage is usually not suitable for gerbils but there are always exceptions, provided that you can create an appropriate layer of bedding and don’t mind cleaning a lot.
Substrate and bedding
Substrate is the material that’s used to create a layer to dig in and absorb urine and odors. Bedding is the material that is used to create nests but is also a common name for substrate.
There are a lot of types of substrate available for gerbils but not all are safe (some are even toxic). Sawdust, not to be confused with wood shavings, and cat litter are for example not safe and should not be used. Others are not good for digging and tunneling and are for this reason less suitable.
The best substrate for gerbils is a plant-based substrate that absorbs urine and water, controls odors, is non-toxic, and is good for creating tunnels. Aspen wood shavings, paper-based bedding, and hemp-based bedding are all recommended. Hay can also be used to provide a little bit of sturdiness to the tunnels. Gerbils will chew on their substrate and create a pulp-like substance for their tunnels.
Substrate can also be used as bedding but if you want to give extra material you can always use shredded paper, facial tissues, and grass hay. Most “nesting” or bedding that is sold to create comfy nests for gerbils (and other pocket pets) is unsafe and should not be used.
Cage interior (enrichment)
Gerbils are active pets and they need to be able to keep themselves busy to prevent boredom and depression. Luckily there are a lot of materials you can give to your gerbils to keep them busy. A cage should contain at least:
- chewing material (pieces of wood, toilet rolls,…)
- large rocks
There’s a bit of controversion on using a running wheel or exercise wheel by gerbils (and other pet rodents). They do get a lot of exercise from it but running can become a compulsion. You should make sure that you keep an eye on this and take away the wheel when you notice signs of such compulsive behavior. If you get an exercise wheel make sure that it has a non-slippery solid surface with a diameter of 30 cm (12″).
Nesting boxes and hides
Although gerbils will create burrows if the layer of substrate is deep enough, you should at least provide one nesting box or hide that is large enough for all gerbils. The hide should be dark inside. You can also add a tunnel that leads into the hide but make sure that the diameter is at least 5 cm (2″).
You can use broken upside-down ceramic or clay flower pots as a hide but make sure that your gerbils can’t hurt themselves. Wooden houses can also be used ut will likely be chewed on. Never use a plastic hide because they can and will chew on it and will ingest the dangerous plastic material.
Gerbils shouldn’t be bathed in water but do need to take an occasional sand bath. This sand bath will keep the coat of your gerbils healthy and dirt-free. Gerbils can also use this sand bath as a toilet area so you’ll need to filter the sand regularly.
Where to Buy Gerbils?
Gerbils are available in almost any place in the world and are a popular and cute pocket pet. This means that you won’t have a lot of difficulties finding a seller.
If you’re looking for gerbils you can find them in one of the following places:
- pet stores
- private breeders
Legality of Mongolian gerbils as pets
The Mongolian gerbil is a popular and common pet in a lot of countries, especially in Europe. However, in some regions, they’re illegal to keep as a pet because they’re considered to be an invasive species. For example, they’re illegal to import and keep as pets in California and Hawaii.
Even when a gerbil is legal in your country you want to consult regional legislation to check if you can buy and keep them without a permit. When you live in a rented property you should check with the landlord if you can keep pets.
Gerbils are pets that don’t require any specific experience and are perfect pets for beginners and for (older) children. They can be tamed easily and are also great fun to watch. If you don’t plan on breeding your best choice is to get a pair of male gerbils from the same litter. This will reduce the risks of fights.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about keeping gerbils as pets, you should definitely read the following articles:
You can also find awesome guides below that contain a lot of practical tips. These articles also go in-depth on certain very important topics and it would recommend reading them before you get gerbils.
You can also find great information from a community of gerbil owners on the Reddit subreddit about gerbils.