Medically Reviewed by Taylor Froiland, PharmD, RPh
Written by Adam McCown, PharmD
Although not quite as popular as dogs and cats, gerbils are often the animal of choice for a child’s first pet. Parents often want to “try out” having an animal to see whether their children are up to the task of caring for one, and gerbils are a popular choice to do that. This is because they are small, they don’t require any walks, they are relatively easy to care for, and, unlike with dog and cat pets, you are not locked into a ten plus year commitment.
Why Gerbils Make Good Pets
Like we mentioned, gerbils make good pets because they are small animals that are relatively easy to take care of. They also have very passive temperament and are friendly, curious, active pets who are simply fun to watch run around their cages. You or your kids can develop a relationship with these little furry animals and, although perfectly happy hanging in their cages, they can also be fun to bring out of their cages to hold and play with.
Other benefits of owning a gerbil is that they don’t eat as much as other pets and require less water than many other types of rodents. This last point is important for many gerbil owners because less water means less frequent urination, which means less smell and larger intervals between cleaning out their cages.
What Is a Gerbil?
Gerbils are burrowing rodents that come from both Africa and Asia. The majority of pet gerbils are Mongolian gerbils. Because these animals originate in the dry arid and semi-arid deserts of Mongolia and other regions, they are adapted to living in hot, dry conditions. This adaptation is the reason why they require less water than many other types of rodents.
Gerbils are small and have long furry tails that have a little tuft of fur at the end of it. Wild gerbils often have a color known as “agouti”—meaning each hair is banded with gray, yellow, and black, with off-white hair on their bellies. Similar to with other pets, selective breeding over the years has led to a number of colors not seen in the wild. You can find pet gerbils that are white, black, gold, and other colors.
Things to Know about Pet Gerbils
Although pet gerbils are relatively low maintenance and easy pets, there are some things you should know before moving ahead and purchasing one for your family.
Gerbils Are Social Animals – Unlike their closely relate hamster cousins, gerbils are very social. This means that they do require attention and play and, according to studies, they live a longer healthier life when they have a gerbil friend. For this reason, if you are thinking about purchasing a pet gerbil, it may be better to actually get two.
Holding Your Gerbil – When handling your pet gerbil, it’s best to hold them close to the ground. These animals have a tendency to move and wiggle without warning and may fall out of your hands. Furthermore, never pick up a gerbil by its tail and always be cool and calm when holding them to avoid them becoming scared and potentially biting you.
Give Your Pet Gerbil Time to Acclimatize – When you first bring your gerbil home, give them time to get used to their new surroundings. Offer them treats through the bars of their cage and approach them in a way that allows them to see you coming so they don’t get spooked. After they start accepting treats regularly, then you can try offering treats to them with the cage door open. You can then move to offering them treats on your hand and see if they come to you and sit on your hand. After that point, you can try picking them up.
What to Feed Your Pet Gerbil – Gerbils eat mostly a mixture of pellets and seeds. You can find gerbil pellet food at most pet stores that is designed to provide essentially all the necessary nutrients that they need to survive. However, to give your pet gerbil some variety, you can supplement their pellet diet with sunflower seeds, small pieces of vegetables and fruits, raisins, mealworms, and small pieces of cheese.
Water Intake Needs for Gerbils – As we said, gerbils are adapted to hot, dry environments. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t need the constant availability of water in their cages. In the wild, gerbils get most of their water from the food they eat but, because you feed them dry food, they need to get all their H2O needs from the water container you provide them.
Pet Gerbil Housing – Because they like to chew, wood or wire cages are often not the best choice for housing your pet. A better choice would be a glass or plastic home—a twenty gallon fish tank is the preferred choice for many pet gerbil owners. A rounded tank is not the best choice either, however, because gerbils like to curl up in corners. Just as with most pets, your gerbil's home can never be too big.
When it comes to gerbil bedding, the best choice is aspen wood shavings. Pine, cedar, or other types of wood may potentially be harmful for your pet. The bedding needs to be cleaned at least once a week, but more frequently if you have more than two gerbils in the same cage.
Conclusion: Pet Gerbils Are a Great Choice
For people new to having pets, gerbils can be a great choice. They teach your children the responsibility of caring for another living thing, can help you work up to a larger pet, and are excellent companions in their own right. If well cared for, they typically live for between four and five years. If you have any questions about taking care of a pet gerbil, then you can consult your veterinarian for anything we didn’t cover here.