Is It Cruel to Keep Gerbils? (How to Treat Pet Gerbils)

Some pets have been domesticated for several centuries, but many pocket pets have been kept as pets for only a few decades. Gerbils have a short lifespan and there have been several generations of gerbils since the first gerbils were kept as pets. Still, some might question if it’s cruel to keep gerbils.

Keeping gerbils as pets isn’t cruel if you take care of them and provide them with everything they need: other gerbils, a large enough cage and deep bedding layer, enrichment to keep them from getting bored, and a nutritionally well-balanced diet. 

If you can’t provide your gerbil(s) with the essentials they require, you’re better off getting a more appropriate pet. Depending on your situation, this can be a pet that you should keep alone, requires a smaller cage, or is more cuddly.

In this article, you’ll learn when it’s cruel to keep gerbils and what you can do to give your gerbils the best life they can have in captivity. You’ll also learn what you need to do when you can no longer care for your gerbils.

When Is It Cruel To Keep Gerbils?

It’s cruel to keep pets that you can’t take care of properly. Gerbils aren’t high-maintenance pets, but they do require a few essentials to stay happy and healthy. It would be cruel to keep your gerbil:

  • as a solitary pet
  • in a small cage that is 10-gallons are smaller
  • without substrate (bedding) or with only a tiny layer
  • without chew toys or ways to stay busy

Also, don’t give an exercise wheel that is too small. An exercise wheel should be at least 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter, but larger is even better. Your gerbil should be able to run with a straight back.

Some might point out that using a hamster ball for gerbils is cruel. Some gerbils might like spending some time in a hamster ball that is large enough (at least 18 cm or 7 inches). However, all animal welfare organizations don’t recommend using one. As such, and from the viewpoint of an experienced owner, I wouldn’t use such a ball.

How To Treat a Gerbil Properly?

A good gerbil owner knows how to care for gerbils and treat them properly. If you’re new to keeping gerbils as pets, you don’t need to know everything there is to know. But you do have to learn the basics of gerbil care to prevent being cruel to your gerbils.

Keep a gerbil in a pair or small group

Good gerbil owners keep their gerbils in a pair or even better in a small group. Gerbils are social creatures and they will become stressed and depressed if you keep them as a solitary pet.

Even if you shower your gerbil with attention, it won’t be the same as having another gerbil in the cage. You’re not a gerbil and can’t fully replace such a companion.

There are some exceptional situations where a gerbil can be kept as a solitary pet. However, these are situations where a gerbil can’t live with other gerbils, is too old to bond with a new gerbil, or is ill and needs to be (temporarily) kept away from the rest of the gerbils.

But as a starting point, you should never buy a single gerbil to keep as a pet without another gerbil companion. So, if you want to get your first gerbils, get at least a pair of gerbils. 

The rule mentioned above of keeping gerbils in a pair or small group applies to Mongolian gerbils and most other gerbil species. However, one important exception is the fat-tailed gerbil. This gerbil species is often kept as a solitary pet because it seems to like living a solitary life.

Keep your gerbils in a large gerbil cage

Wild gerbils live in a relatively large territory and live in burrows and tunnels deep beneath the surface. Therefore, it would be cruel to keep them in tiny cages without the possibility of digging in the bedding.

A lot of brands sell gerbil cages that aren’t suitable for gerbils. These cages are small, made of plastic, and lack the necessary height to put in a deep bedding layer. 

Although some sources would suggest a 10-gallon tank or cage for a pair of gerbils, I would recommend getting at least a 20-gallon tank or cage. The floor area should be at least 2,500 cm² (400 sq inch) and a height of at least 30 cm (12 inches).

If you want to give your gerbils the best care, I would even recommend a larger cage. For example, a cage or tank that is 100 cm x 50 cm x 50 cm (40 inches x 20 inches x 20 inches) would be even better to simulate the gerbils’ natural environment.

Deep layer of bedding to allow digging

A shallow layer of bedding is not suitable for gerbils. Gerbils need to have a layer between 20 cm (8 inches) and 30 cm (12 inches) in their cage. A deeper layer can even be better but is often challenging to create in a cage or tank.

The bedding (or substrate) should be suitable for gerbils, which means that it should be non-toxic, absorbent, and control the odors. Unfortunately, several substrate types are not suitable, like pine and cedar shaving or cat litter.

Provide enough enrichment to your gerbils

Gerbils need to be kept busy or they will start to get stressed and bored. So give your gerbils chew toys, hides, ladders, and cardboard tunnels. Allow your gerbils to forage their food by scattering and hiding seeds around the cage.

An exercise or running wheel (sometimes called hamster wheel) is essential for almost all pet gerbils. As I already mentioned, such an exercise wheel should be large enough and be suitable for gerbils: no bare rungs, at least 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter, and a solid background.

A flying saucer is even more suitable for gerbils as it eliminates the risk of your gerbils getting a “wheel tail”.

Feed a nutritional and well-balanced diet

Gerbils are picky eaters and can sometimes eat only their favorite seeds from a seed mix. You can prevent this by giving a pellet food (containing all nutrients in each pellet) or a combination of pellet food and a seed mix.

Gerbils also have specific nutritional requirements when it comes to protein, fat, and fiber content. Therefore, you should ensure that you get a gerbil diet (pellet food or seed mix) that contains the appropriate percentages of protein, fat, and fiber and the vitamins and minerals that gerbils need.

What To Do If You Can’t Care for Your Gerbil?

If you’re, for some reason, in a situation where you no longer can give your gerbils the proper care, you should take steps to give your gerbils a better life. You should never let your gerbils stay in a bad living situation.

The only step you can take is to rehome your gerbil(s) and give them up for adoption. You can either give the gerbils to a rescue shelter or find a new home in gerbil communities (for example, on gerbil forums or Facebook groups).

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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