The Mongolian Gerbil is the most common breed of gerbil kept as pets. Their natural environment is very dry as they originate from the desert plains of Africa and Asia and spend most of their time in underground burrows away from the intense heat. They live in family groups and are active during the day.
Their sociable, friendly and inquisitive personalities make for a wonderful pet for your family, with the added bonus that they rarely ever bite! In captivity, you can expect to enjoy the companionship of your new family member for between three to five years.
As with any pet, they do have specific care requirements to ensure they are healthy and happy when in a captive environment. It can be easy to think that they would suit the same environment as a pet hamster, but your gerbil care needs are significantly different.
In the wild gerbils live in family groups that can consist of anything between two and seventeen individuals. Therefore, to help keep them as content as possible and ensure they can exhibit their natural social behaviour, it is important you purchase more than one and ideally a same-sex pair.
As gerbils live in underground burrows in the wild and love to dig, the housing you provide them with needs to accommodate this natural instinct. There are a few gerbil cages to choose from and the most popular is a vivarium (glass tank). The tank needs to be as big as possible with a minimum floor surface of 40cm x 75cm and at least 30cm tall. It is vital that the tank is secured with a wire mesh lid for important ventilation and security. It is also important to place the house out of direct sunlight as well as somewhere quiet and well ventilated, yet free from drafts.
Within the tank, use a thick (at least six inches) layer of substrate, such a mix of organic soil or peat and hay. This enables them to create tunnels and dig as they would do in their wild habitat. On the surface, provide plenty of hiding places using tubes, flower pots etc. Provide additional hay and bedding (such as shredded toilet roll) to help then create their nests within the burrows.
As with all rodents, their teeth continually grow. Therefore, it is important to provide suitable objects to gnaw (fruit tree branches and wooden toys) which will help keep their teeth in good condition.
Diet and Nutrition
Together with a high-quality gerbil dry mix feed, ensure you provide small quantities of fresh vegetables and fruit (carrot, broccoli, apple and orange are all great choices). Instead of placing food in a bowl, these can be scatted around the cage to help your gerbil exhibit their natural foraging behaviours.
Clean water should be provided in a shallow bowl and changed daily.
Each day before feeding, remove any visible food that has not been consumed. You will need to do a complete clean at least once a week. Keep a small amount of the original bedding/substrate to re-use, this will help reduce stress as your gerbil will have some familiar smells when they go back into their clean home.
Exercise and Handling
It is important to begin handling your gerbil as early as possible, whilst making it a calm and pleasant experience for them. This will help them get used to handling and increase your ability to form a close relationship with your new pet. Holding your gerbil close to the floor in cupped hands is the safest option as if they do wriggle out they are less likely to injure themselves. It is important to supervise children with handling and it is essential that they are not ever picked up by their tails. Avoid overhanding and ensure your pet gerbil gets as much time to just enjoy burrowing and digging.
Time out of the cage on occasion can be good for them to increase their exercise. As they are quite small, find a secure place where they cannot get stuck in cracks and crevasses. They love cardboard so providing a makeshift playpen with some barriers and lots of toilet roll tubes and objects to explore can be a safe and effective option.