Gerbils are active and enjoy climbing and burrowing. Appropriate housing for these animals provides opportunities for both. Maintaining a clean environment and providing high-quality commercial diets formulated for gerbils help ensure that your pet remains healthy.
Gerbils must be kept in a cage with a solid (non-mesh) bottom, because they often stand up on their hind legs. An ordinary fish tank with a breathable (mesh) lid makes an excellent home for a gerbil. Solid plastic containers with connecting tunnels make an interesting environment. A rule of thumb is that each gerbil requires about 5 gallons of space; 1 gerbil needs at least a 5-gallon tank, 2 gerbils need a 10-gallon tank, and so on. Living quarters should be 60 to 70°F, and relatively dry (below 50% humidity). Whatever type of cage is chosen, it should be secure (to prevent escape) and easy to keep clean.
The cage should be about 1/3 filled with bedding materials to provide gerbils with a place to dig and hoard their food and a means to absorb their urine. Bedding made from aspen or corn cob shavings is a good choice and is commercially available. Recycled paper products marketed as bedding are safe and easy to clean. Cedar shavings contain oils that may be toxic to small animals, and their use remains controversial. Gerbil housing should be cleaned and disinfected often (once every 2 to 3 weeks) to prevent disease.
Nesting materials should be provided. Plain shredded facial tissue is suitable. Commercially-available nesting material is not recommended, as gerbils' small feet tend to get tangled in the strands. You may wish to provide a small wood, cardboard, or ceramic box in which the gerbil can build its nest. Gerbils may also benefit from regular sand or dust baths as described for chinchillas (see Chinchillas: Dust Baths); rolling in the sand is a way for these desert animals to help keep their fur clean.
The healthiest food choice is pellets formulated for gerbils. These pellets should contain 18 to 20% protein and are readily available in most pet stores. It is better to avoid the gerbil mixtures that contain pellets mixed with seeds, as the animals will often pick out the seeds and leave the pellets. To avoid obesity and diabetes, 5 grams of pellets per day is adequate. It is normal for gerbils to hoard their food, burying it in their bedding and around their cage. Homemade diets containing seeds or table scraps are usually not nutritionally balanced, although pumpkin or sunflower seeds can be offered as occasional treats. A consistent food source helps to prevent health problems.
Because gerbils are adapted to dry, desert-like conditions, they do not consume much water; 4 milliliters (less than 1 teaspoon) per day is average for an adult. However, plenty of fresh, clean water should be supplied daily. Water can be provided via a bottle with a metal spout or nipple, which can be hung from the lid of the tank, or via a small bowl. All water dispensers should be washed thoroughly when the water is refilled.
In the wild, gerbils build elaborate burrows. Therefore many gerbil owners provide their pets with commercially-available plastic tubing and other environments that allow for climbing and burrowing. Other options are sturdy rocks, wooden planks, and ladders for climbing (when choosing toys, keep in mind that gerbils chew everything, so do not choose anything with pieces that may be harmful if swallowed).
Small cardboard boxes and toilet-paper tubes are quickly shredded but make excellent and readily available gerbil toys.
Some pet owners choose to provide their gerbils with an exercise wheel. However, the slats in a traditional hamster wheel can catch a gerbil's feet or delicate tail. When choosing an exercise wheel, either look for one with a solid surface, or cover the outside of a typical hamster wheel with tape to create a solid surface.
Rearranging the contents of the cage periodically will help keep your gerbil stimulated.
Gerbils are highly social animals that live in family groups in the wild. Living alone may be stressful. Keeping gerbils in pairs, especially same-sex pairs from the same litter, is recommended.
Gerbils have a friendly temperament and are easy to socialize. However, they need time to adjust to their new surroundings and to your presence. Do not remove them from their cage immediately upon bringing them home. Begin by sitting quietly by their cage, talking softly to them, or offering them a treat from your open palm.
Gerbils may bite when they are stressed. In order to avoid stress when handling, do not startle a gerbil or pick it up while it is sleeping. While the gerbil is getting used to your presence, allow it to climb over your palm before lifting it out of its cage.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian); Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM