The word "gerbil" is a diminutive form of "jerboa", though
the jerboas are an unrelated group of rodents occupying a
similar ecological niche.
One Mongolian species, Meriones unguiculatus, also known as the Clawed Jird, is a gentle and hardy animal that has become a popular pet. It was first brought to the United States in 1954 by Dr. Victor Schwentker for use in research.
Gerbils are typically between six and twelve inches (150 to 300 mm) long, including the tail which makes up approximately one half of their total length. One species however, the Great Gerbil, or Rhombomys opimus, originally native to Turkmenistan, can grow to more than 16 inches (400 mm) in length. The average adult gerbil weighs approximately 2 1/2 ounces. As of August 19, 2003, officials in western China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region began releasing eagles to combat the damage they say the great gerbils have done to eleven million acres (46,000 km˛) of grassland.
Pet gerbils have an average lifespan of 2 to 4 years. Some have been known to live five or six years
Gerbils were first introduced to the pet industry in 1964. These were the Mongolian gerbils. Their value as pets was soon appreciated and they are now found in pet shops all over the UK and USA.
It is illegal to purchase, import or keep a gerbil as a pet in the U.S. State of California.
Reasons for popularity:
Gerbils should preferably be kept in pairs or small same-sex
groups, as they are very social. Some gerbils can do well alone.
Since gerbils are very social, they should have at least one
companion. If they don't have any companions, the gerbil may die
earlier than the average lifespan of 2-4 years. Males tend to
bite more often than females do, so female gerbils are preferred
more by gerbil owners.
Though gerbils can live in any type of enclosure, glass aquariums require the least amount of cleaning and make it more difficult for them to escape, as well as providing an unimpeded view of the pets. Gerbils are capable of squeezing through surprisingly small openings, so cages made for birds and other larger creatures are often not suitable. Gerbils can gnaw through most plastics, so plastic containers made for hamsters (such as the Habitrail brand) do not make good homes. Enclosures must have tightly secured tops or ceilings to prevent escape; gerbils are very good at jumping, and will intentionally knock lids off by repeatedly jumping into them.
Bedding, typically made of recycled paper pulp or aspen shavings, is necessary for catching waste and providing nesting material. It also protects the gerbils' feet; wire bottomed enclosures like those used for birds and hamsters can injure gerbils. The oils in cedar and pine shavings can cause severe respiratory distress in gerbils, so aspen is typically recommended by gerbil owners. The shavings or "litter" should be changed weekly to avoid possible health hazards such as infections.
Water must be provided at all times, usually via a water bottle with a metal spout and ball-bearing valve. These are commonly available at pet stores. Water should be changed daily.
As pets they are typically fed a mixture of grains, nuts and sunflower seeds.
Gerbils' teeth continually grow, so they must be provided with materials to gnaw on to prevent the teeth from becoming uncomfortably long; in extreme cases, the teeth can prevent the mouth from closing, causing starvation. While normally gerbils do not bite humans, gerbils with overly long teeth can be desperate to find something to chew on. Cardboard tubes from toilet paper and paper towel rolls are entertaining and inexpensive toys for gerbils, as well as providing good gnawing material. Wood can also be used, as long as it does not splinter too much. Plastic toys made for hamsters and other small pets will be quickly destroyed. Transparent plastic balls made for rolling around inside can be used with some supervision.
A privacy home (something they can hide under) and a hamster wheel are recommended accessories by many gerbil owners. Wood is a recommended privacy home material because they can easily gnaw through plastic. Mesh or solid wheels are safer than barred wheels, as the gerbils' long tails and legs can get caught in between the bars and injured or amputated.
Like many rodents, gerbils reproduce rapidly, and keeping mixed-sex groups can result in a large number of gerbils being produced very quickly compared to larger, more common household pets such as cats, dogs, and birds. Baby gerbils, like other rodents, are born blind, hairless, and mostly helpless. Though rarely, under population stress, baby gerbils may be killed and eaten by littermates or parents-- so make sure they have enough space. Male gerbils are excellent fathers, and should be left with the family to help raise the pups. However, gerbils will mate immediately after giving birth, so leaving the male ensures another litter will be on the way. If another litter is not desired, a daughter from a previous litter can be left to help raise the pups instead of the father. Gerbils reach puberty quickly; males will attempt to mate with their mothers if allowed to reach maturity in the same enclosure, but make sure not to remove them too early, either.
Misalignment of incisors due to injury or malnutrition may
result in overgrowth, which can cause injury to the roof of the
mouth. Symptoms include a dropped or loss of appetite, drooling,
weight loss, or foul breath. The only cure is for a veterinarian
to regularly trim the overgrown incisors and prescribe
Common injuries are caused by gerbils being dropped or falling, usually while inside of an "exercise ball", which can cause broken limbs or a fractured spine, for which there is no cure. Injured gerbils should be immediately examined by a veterinarian to determine the best course of action in each situation.
A common problem for all small rodents is neglect, which can cause the gerbils to not get adequate food and water, causing serious health concerns, including serious dehydration, starvation, stomach ulcers, eating of bedding material, and cannibalism. It is important to regularly check water bottles, as they often become clogged or contact bedding, draining the bottles.
The most serious intestinal disease of small rodents is "wet tail", or Proliferative Ileitis, which is most common among weaning gerbils (3-6 weeks). Symptoms include lethargy, increased irritability, hunched posture, fluid or bloody diarrhea, a wet, soiled anal area and tail, and, sometimes, rectal prolapse. A veterinarian is needed to immediately examine and evaluate the situation and will usually treat the problem with fluid replacement, oral antidiarrheal medication, and antibiotics, although treatment is often unrewarding, and death may occur as soon as 48 hours after the onset of initial signs.
Between 20 percent and 50 percent of all pet gerbils have the seizure disorder epilepsy. The seizures are caused by fright, handling, or a new environment. The attacks can be mild to severe but do typically appear not to have any long-term effects, except for rare cases where death results from very severe seizures. If a gerbil is genetically predisposed, the owner can prevent future seizures by frequently handling the gerbils while they're young, keeping their environment stable, and providing them with a complete, balanced diet.
Tumors, both benign and malignant, are fairly common in pet gerbils, and are most common in females over the age of 2. Usually, the tumors involve the ovaries, causing an extended abdomen, or the skin cancer, with tumors most often developing around the ears, feet, mid-abdomen, and base of the tail, appearing as a lump or abscess. If it is an external tumor, a veterinarian can often perform surgery, but internal tumors are much more difficult to remove, since the animal is so small in size, so the owners typically elect not to operate, but, rather, elect to euthanize the pet.
Gerbils can lose their tails due to improper handling. The first sign is a loss of fur from the tip of the tail, then, the skinless tail then dies off and sloughs, with the stump usually healing without complications. However, in some cases, the tail may need to be amputated.
The most common infectious disease in gerbils is Tyzzer's Disease, which is often caused by either stress or bacteria, and produces symptoms such as ruffled fur, lethargy, hunched posture, poor appetite, diarrhea, and, often death. It quickly spreads between gerbils in the same cage, so, for this reason, it is recommended that a new pet be isolated until you are sure he is free of disease.
There are many color varieties of gerbil available in pet shops today generally the result of years of selective breeding.
There are over 20 different coat colors in the Mongolian gerbil, which has been captive-bred the longest.
Another species of gerbil has also been recently introduced to the pet industry: the fat-tailed gerbil, or duprasi. They’re smaller than the common Mongolian gerbils and have long soft coats and a short, fat tail, appearing more like a hamster. There is a variation on the normal duprasi coat which is more gray in color, which may be a mutation, or it may be the result of hybrids between the Egyptian and Algerian subspecies of duprasi.
White spotting has been reported in not only the Mongolian Gerbil, but also the Pallid Gerbil and possibly Sundervall's Jird.
A long-haired mutation, a gray agouti or chinchilla mutation, white spotting, and possibly a dilute mutation have also appeared in Shaw's Jirds, and white spotting and a dilute mutation have shown up in Bushy-Tailed Jirds.
This Gerbil Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub