how long do gerbils live

Gerbil Lifespan: How Long Do Gerbils Live in Captivity?

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The gerbil is a rodent that doesn’t have a long lifespan like some pocket pets. When you’re interested in getting gerbils or when you already have gerbils, you’ll want to know how long a gerbil lives. The lifespan of a pet plays an important role when preparing for a pet.

Gerbils in captivity have a longer lifespan than gerbils in the wild. Mongolian gerbils in captivity will live between 2 and 5 years. There are several factors that will influence the lifespan, such as genetics, care, and diet. In the wild, Mongolian gerbils will usually live between 3 and 4 months.

The most popular pet gerbil is the Mongolian gerbil and this article is mainly aimed at this pet gerbil. These gerbils aren’t a long-term commitment but you’ll still have to take good care of them for several years. These little rodents are great to watch and can get affectionate. You’ll want them around for as long as possible and this article is all about that. 

Some other gerbil species have a longer lifespan but are also less kept as a pet. To give you complete information you’ll also learn something about the lifespan of other gerbil species. The same basic principles will apply for keeping your gerbil happy and let them live a long life.

In this article, you’ll learn what the lifespan of gerbils in the wild and in captivity is. You’ll learn what factors have an influence on the lifespan and how they influence it. Finally, you’ll get some tips and tricks to extend the lifespan of your gerbils so they can live a long and healthy life.

Gerbil Lifespan in the Wild

Wild Mongolian gerbils have a shorter lifespan than gerbils that are held in captivity. In general, a wild gerbil can live between 2 and 3 years but most of them will die in the very first year. According to Animal Diversity Web the average lifespan in the wild is around 3 and 4 months. This can be explained by the dangers they’re exposed to in the wild such as predators, lack of food or water, and diseases.

Gerbil Lifespan in Captivity

A few studies have been conducted to determine the lifespan of the Mongolian gerbil. A study from 1969 determined a mean lifespan of 110 weeks for male gerbils and 139 weeks for female gerbils.The oldest male gerbil was 208 weeks and the oldest female gerbil in the study was 209 weeks. Longevity records from 1990 indicated a life expectancy of 2 years.

So the lifespan of a captive or pet gerbil is a lot longer than that of wild gerbils. Nowadays, Mongolian gerbils usually will live between 2 and 5 years, with an average of 3 years. Although a pet gerbil won’t be exposed to the dangers of predators or extreme weather, they can get sick or attacked by other pets. But the main dangers in captivity that might lead to a short lifespan are improper care and a bad diet. I’ll explore both of these below in a second.

Important Factors

The most important factors that will determine the lifespan of your gerbil are:

  • genetic predisposition
  • the way you care for your gerbils
  • the diet of your gerbils

Genetics

Genetic predisposition to certain health issues is one of the main factors that determine the lifespan of any animal, including your gerbil. Gerbils are known to be prone to certain health issues and diseases. It’s best to be aware that your gerbil is susceptible to these health problems so you can try to limit the possibility of them coming up or to know them so you can seek the advice of a vet.

Seizures

Gerbils are known to be able to get seizures that are mainly caused by loud noises or stress. When you see your gerbil trembling or severely shaking this is caused by a seizure. Seizures can occur in gerbils from a very young age (around two months) but they will usually diminish when your gerbil gets older. There is little you can do in case of a seizure and it’s best to just avoid loud noises and stress to avoid seizures altogether. 

Cancer

Just as humans, gerbils can also develop cancers and some of them are possibly inherited. There are some more frequent types of cancers like skin cancer and cancer of the ovaries or the ventral scent gland. Such cancers can be noticed by lumps and swellings and you should seek the help of a vet for further treatment.

Care

The lifespan of your gerbil will be reduced when it doesn’t receive the proper care it deserves. To live a healthy and long life your gerbil will need:

  • companionship
  • appropriate housing
  • a well-balanced diet (which I’ll take about later)
  • toys and accessories
  • proper handling
  • regular visits to the vet

Companionship

Mongolian gerbils are social creatures that live in groups in the wild. A common mistake that new gerbil owner will make is to get only one gerbil and keep it as a solitary animal. When you keep only one gerbil, you create a risky situation. Your gerbil will have a high risk of stress and boredom which will eventually lead to a shorter lifespan.

So don’t make the mistake of getting only one gerbil and get at least a pair or even better a small group of gerbils. This will only have benefits and will stimulate the natural behavior of your gerbils.

Appropriate housing

Another common mistake that new gerbil owners make is getting small and inappropriate housing. Gerbils need a fairly large amount of space to climb and run around and not all kinds of rodent cages are suitable for gerbils. Get a large enough enclosure with a proper substrate and bedding that’s suitable for gerbils.

Toys and accessories

Toys and accessories will keep your gerbils busy and will prevent them from getting bored. You should definitely invest in chew toys to wear down the teeth of your gerbils. Gerbil teeth will grow continuously and gerbils need to chew to prevent dental problems.

Proper handling

Gerbils are curious but also small and fast animals. Most gerbils will be easily tamed and can be handled without a lot of problems. You pick up a gerbil by scooping it up with your hands. Another way to pick up a gerbil is by picking it up by the base of the tail. When you try to handle your gerbils too much or try to force them to be pet, this can cause stress and a shorter lifespan. So please don’t force anything and learn how to properly handle gerbils.

Health problems and vet visits

Gerbils can get a few “common” health problems that can usually be avoided. These health problems are:

  • dental problems
  • skin problems
  • tail loss
  • gastrointestinal problems

When you notice signs of health issues, seek the help of an experienced vet. It’s also best to get your gerbils a checkup each year.

Diet

Another important factor that has an influence on the lifespan of a gerbil is the diet. Luckily this is the factor that you can adjust yourself. A well-balanced diet will keep your gerbil healthy as long as possible and will prevent the development of a lot of diseases.

Wild gerbils will eat the seeds of grasses and herbaceous plants. Occasionally they will eat insects or eat plant roots. Pet gerbils will need to eat a well-balanced dry food (a mix or pellets) and the occasional treat (like grains, nuts, and seeds).

Age-Related Health Risks 

According to the MSD Veterinary Manual, Mongolian gerbils have an increased risk of getting specific health issues when they reach a certain age. These age-related health problems are:

  • neoplasia: an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells which leads to a tumor (also called neoplasm). Studies have shown that there’s a 25% to 40% incidence of neoplasia in gerbils that are older than two years. These tumors usually affect the skin, the kidneys, the glands and the female reproductive organs.
  • chronic glomerulonephropathy: a kidney disease that leads to an increase in urine production, an increased thirst, and weight loss. This disease can also occur with a tumor.
  • aural cholesteatoma:  a cholesteatoma is a destructive and expanding growth in the ear that can lead to bone necrosis and the destruction of the inner ear. Gerbils seem to be prone to this disease (which is not cancerous) as it occurs in 50 percent of gerbils older than two years.

Older male gerbils also seem to be have a higher chance of getting focal myocardial degeneration and fibrosis. 

How Long do Fat-Tailed Gerbils Live?

Fat-tailed (also called Duprasi) gerbils have a longer life expectancy than Mongolian gerbils. They will generally live between 5 and 8 years in captivity. This kind of gerbil also is less likely to bite but is less common as a pet. In some regions, keeping a fat-tailed gerbil is even forbidden.

Tips and Tricks for a Long Gerbil Lifespan

Pet gerbils have a short lifespan but you can take some measures to extend the lifespan of your little pet. Follow these 10 tips and tricks to enhance your gerbil’s life so it can live a long and healthy life:

  • get your gerbils from a reputable breeder or pet store that can give more information about the lineage of the gerbils
  • feed your gerbils a well-balanced diet and avoid high-sugar foods and treats
  • find an experienced vet that can help you when your gerbils get sick or injured
  • get your gerbil the company of another gerbil or get a (small) group of gerbils
  • handle your gerbils properly and let them come to you
  • clean the cage regularly
  • never grab your gerbil by its tail as this will cause an instinctive defense mechanism and tail loss
  • make sure that your gerbils have a large enough enclosure in a quiet and safe place
  • provide enough toys and accessories in their cage to prevent stress and boredom
  • weigh your gerbils regularly when it gets older (2 years and older) to notice signs of health issues.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in learning more about gerbils as pets, please read the following articles:

If you’re interested in getting gerbils as pets you should also definitely read our beginner’s guide to keeping gerbils as pets and our gerbil care guide.


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