The Sleeping Habits of Gerbils: Are Gerbils Nocturnal?

Gerbils are highly active creatures that love to run, jump, and play. But this also means that they need to rest to recover. Most rodents take this rest during the day and will be active at night (nocturnal pets). This can make them less suitable as a pet for some people. So, are gerbils nocturnal?

Mongolian gerbils are crepuscular and not nocturnal animals. They are more active during twilight periods. Gerbils will sleep half of the day and half of the night. They will sleep for short periods during the day and night and will be more active during dusk and dawn.

A common misconception is that Mongolian gerbils are nocturnal although some sources will say that they’re diurnal. In fact, Mongolian gerbils, which are the most commonly kept pet gerbils, are crepuscular creatures that will come out of their burrows at dawn and will begin foraging.

In the middle of the day, they will be far less active. It’s only at dusk that they’ll become again more active. During the night they will sleep in their burrows but will still have periods of activity.

In this article you’ll be learning everything there is to know about the sleeping habits of your gerbils. I’ll also give you some tips and tricks to not disturb your gerbils while they’re sleeping.

Are Gerbils Nocturnal?

Gerbils in the wild are neither nocturnal nor diurnal. They will sleep for short periods during the day and will sleep during the night. Although also active during large parts of the day, they’ll be more active at twilight periods (dawn and dusk).

If you don’t know a lot about the sleeping habits of animals, let me give you an intro. There are a lot of different sleeping patterns but basically a pet can show diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular behavior:

  • diurnal: active during the day, for example, humans
  • crepuscular: active at twilight, for example, the crested gecko
  • nocturnal: active during the night, for example, owls

Gerbils are, just like a lot of other pocket pets, crepuscular animals.

Why are gerbils crepuscular?

The sleeping behavior of an animal depends on a number of factors but the most important ones are the environment of the animal and their status as predator or prey animal.

Environment of gerbils

A lot of animals adapt their sleeping behavior to their environment and its climate.

In hot climates, an animal will often sleep during the day to conserve energy. At twilight or during the night they’ll become active and look for food. In cooler climates, most animals will be active during the day and will sleep at night.

Mongolian gerbils originate from China, Mongolia, and Russia and are found in grassland, shrubland, and deserts. The temperatures in their natural environment can get very high (even up to 122 °F (50 °C) during the day and can get very cold at night. Mongolian gerbils don’t like these cold and hot temperatures and will stay in their burrow at times when the temperature outside is too high or too low.

Gerbils are happiest at normal room temperatures. In hot regions, this kind of temperature will occur at twilight, so at dawn and dusk. At these times it’s not too hot and not too cold for the gerbils.

Gerbils are prey animals

Predators and prey adapt their sleeping habits to each other. Predators will be awake at times when they’re prey is available. Prey, on the other hand, will try to avoid the times when their primary predators are out hunting.

You probably guessed that gerbils aren’t predatory in nature and are a so-called prey animal. The gerbils’ main predators are birds of prey and snakes.

Needless to say that gerbils will try to avoid being outside when their predators are awake. Most of their predators are nocturnal and it’s natural that they adapted to being awake at the moment when their predators are not yet awake or just waking up. If gerbils would also be nocturnal they would be awake and looking for food at the same time their predators are. This would be an extremely bad idea for the gerbils.

Consequences of the crepuscular nature of gerbils

There are some consequences of the crepuscular behavior of gerbils. It’s important to be aware of these consequences:

  • gerbils will be awake during the day and night
  • they sleep in short intervals (cycles)
  • gerbils will become more active at dawn and dusk

For most people, this will be no problem. If you’re at for work or school during the day your gerbils will be playing or cuddling with each other. This is why it’s important to keep at least a pair of gerbils. When you come home in the evening your gerbils will already be awake. You should spend some time bonding with your gerbils,.

The crepuscular nature of the gerbils also has its possible downsides:

  • cage location is important: the cage should be placed in a location that experiences a normal day/night light cycle. The cage should be in a location that has full daylight during the day and has little to no light during the night.
  • prevent boredom: gerbils can get bored if they’ve got nothing to do. Since they’re awake most of the day, it’s extremely important to provide enough cage space and toys for your gerbils to be active and play. It’s important to get at least a pair of gerbils since gerbils are social animals that love the companionship of other gerbils.
  • activity during the night: gerbils can make a lot of noise while they’re awake during the night. If you keep a gerbil cage in your bedroom this can be problematic if you want a good night’s sleep.

Gerbil Sleeping Habits

When do gerbils sleep?

Mongolian gerbils are crepuscular and will sleep both during the day and at night. Gerbils switch between sleep cycles and cycles of high activity. Most gerbils can also adapt to human sleeping habits, becoming more active during the day.

According to a study published in Psychology and Behavior, gerbils had equal amounts of waking and sleep during the light (day) and dark (night) phase. Another study in the same journal concluded that gerbils were more active during twilight periods, so between 6 and 8 a.m. and 6 and 8 p.m.

How long do gerbils sleep?

Mongolian gerbils sleep on average 12 hours each day although some will sleep more and some less. Gerbils won’t sleep in one long period. They will sleep 1 to 4 hours and then will be awake for a period of high activity.

An average of 12 hours of sleep a day can seem a lot but you’ve got to understand that gerbils are very active creatures that will spend a lot of energy during the awake periods. They will look for food, drink water, groom each other, make elaborate tunnels, play, run, and jump (in short: explore) around in the gerbilarium.

If your gerbil is sleeping less or more this can have a lot of causes. If you’ve got a baby gerbil or an elderly gerbil you’ll notice that they sleep more. Babies need more sleep because they’re still growing up while elder gerbils need more sleep because they’re easily tired and have less energy.

How do gerbils sleep?

Gerbils are social animals and this also reflects in their sleeping positions. It’s common for gerbils to:

  • form gerbil piles: if you got a lot of gerbils they will often sleep on top of each other. This is something you often see in pet stores where there are a lot of gerbils in one cage.
  • snuggle next or on top of each other: a pair of gerbils will not form a pile but can snuggle next to each other or with one top of the other.

Where do your gerbils sleep?

Gerbils in the wild will sleep underground in burrows with chambers they’ve created. These burrows protect them from hot and cold weather and from predators that lurk around. Most gerbil cages don’t have enough space to simulate these burrows and a lot of people will use gerbil houses or hideaways.

I would recommend getting a large enough cage or gerbilarium with enough depth to create burrows in the bedding material. A layer of 10 to 15 inches will usually be sufficient to satisfy the burrowing needs. Your gerbils will create tunnels in the bedding and will build a nest in it.

Besides these underground burrows, a gerbil house is also recommended. Your gerbils will soon use such a house as a nest and use some of the bedding material to make it more comfortable. When buying a gerbil house you should make sure that they’re made of gnaw-proof plastic or even better of unfurnished wood. A wooden gerbil house can safely be used and your gerbil can gnaw and chew on it without any trouble.

Even when you provide a deep layer of bedding and a gerbil house it’s entirely possible to see that your gerbils just form a pile in an open space in the cage. This is something you’ll usually see in pet stores where there isn’t sufficient bedding and aren’t enough gerbil houses to fit the gerbils. Gerbils will try to get on the bottom of the pile to have a warm place to sleep. A gerbil that is on top of the pile and feels cold will go to the bottom of the pile.

Do gerbils always sleep together?

Most gerbils will snuggle and sleep next to or on top of each other but it’s possible that gerbils have different sleeping patterns and that some are awake while others are asleep. This is entirely normal and nothing to worry about. For example, a gerbil can sleep for an hour and then be awake for a period while other gerbils are still asleep.

A group of gerbils will usually sleep together so when you notice that one gerbil doesn’t sleep with the group and has an entirely different sleeping pattern this can be caused by a rejection from the group.

Can gerbils adjust their sleep pattern?

Gerbils are light sleepers and can wake up if they hear you or any noise in the vicinity of their cage. This means that they will need to sleep at another time. If you’ve got your gerbils for some time it’s possible – but not always – that their sleep pattern changes.

This means that they will sleep while you’re away or while you sleep. This way gerbils can become more nocturnal (if you’re awake at night) or more diurnal (if you’re at home during the day).

Tips and Tricks

A healthy gerbil needs its sleep and it’s important that you don’t bother them too much their sleep. Gerbils are light sleepers and can be woken up very easily. To help you give your pets the best sleep, here are some tips and tricks.

  • provide a gerbil house: make sure that the gerbilarium or cage has at least one gerbil house in it or more depending on the number of gerbils you’ve got. Provide enough bedding material for your gerbils to create a comfy home.
  • place the gerbil cage in a room with a natural day/night light cycle: a natural light cycle improves the natural behavior of gerbils and doesn’t mess with their circadian rhythm.
  • don’t put the cage near a window: putting the cage or gerbilarium near direct sunlight may cause overheating of the cage very fast.
  • get at least two gerbils: gerbils are social animals that live in groups in the wild and can quickly become stressed if left alone. So get at least two gerbils so they can snuggle and sleep together and have a good sleep.
  • provide enough toys, bedding, and accessories: if a gerbil doesn’t have anything to do in the cage it will become bored and will sleep more. This isn’t ideal. Provide enough distraction for your gerbils so they can explore their cage and can get rid of their energy. This will lead to a higher quality of life.

Although gerbils aren’t strictly nocturnal they can make a lot of noise during the night. This noise can be caused by running in an exercise wheel or just by playing and exploring the gerbilarium while making noises and sounds. Luckily, there are ways to reduce this noise and try to keep them a little bit more quiet at night.

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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