Colloquially known as "desert rats", the Mongolian Gerbil is a small omnivorous rodent that has been around our island since the 1980s.
Most of today’s pet gerbil populations are descended from some of the wild individuals who were caught in the vast, open Mongolian Desert. They are very efficient creatures, consuming little water and producing dry, hard pellets as excretion.
Over the years, they have grown to become popular as pets. They have a lifespan of 3 - 4 years, though some live till 5 or 6. They come in a great variety of colours and markings and they generally have an agreeable temperament.
Gerbils are curious, lively, highly sociable and live well in pairs or small groups called clans.
These factors make them reasonably easy pets to look after, but as they are different from other small mammals, there are a few extra things you need to know before bringing them home.
Gerbils are quite diurnal, which means, like us, they are more active during the day. They take a series of short naps throughout the day, and during these times, they should not be disturbed.
Being social creatures, gerbils are friendly and easy to tame with regular handling. They do not bite readily unless they feel threatened or when faced with unfamiliar individuals.
Unlike mice or hamsters, gerbils can often be seen standing up on their hind legs as they observe their surroundings with great curiosity. They will thump their hind legs rapidly when startled, agitated or excited, but mostly this serves as a danger signal to other gerbils and a cue to hide.
Gerbil should ideally come in pairs or a bonded small group; they do not do well as a solitary pet.
Keeping a same-sex pair is recommended and litter-mates usually do well together. However, never put two or more adult gerbils together in the same place if they have never met before – they do not like strangers and the results are often dire.
The split cage method is the recommended way to safely and gradually introduce two gerbils together.
Gerbils may be small, but they are highly active and excellent chewers ‒ this means they need a lot of space to burrow, climb and run around in.
Since they will spend the vast majority of their lives in an enclosure, it needs to be of a size where they can get adequate entertainment and exercise. Gerbils housed in enclosures that are too small can become temperamental. This often leads to aggression and fights.
Glass or acrylic tanks with modified covers are suited for housing purposes. A standard 2 feet acrylic tank is appropriate for a pair of gerbils, and these can be easily purchased for about $35. Tanks provide clear views, and a 20-gallon tank (approx 61 x 30 x 40 cm) can be easily carried and washed by a single person.
No matter your chosen form of housing, make sure it has a secure, chew-proof lid that provides adequate ventilation. Gerbils are adept jumpers and escape easily with a loose or partially uncovered lid. They can also chew their way out of a lid if it's made of plastic or wood, as with guppy tank covers, wooden slats and plastic grids.
Most owners prefer a mix of hay, aspen shavings and paper-based beddings. Avoid scented beddings, newspaper and aromatic wood like cedar and pine. These woods contain compounds called phenols and can cause respiratory problems and liver distress in gerbils.
Gerbils eat seeds, grains, fruits, vegetables and even insects. A high-quality mix should be given as a base, and varied types of food can be added optionally for greater variety and nutritional quality. Most owners will feed a combination of seed/grain mix and lab blocks.
Gerbils do not have any special dietary requirements like extra Vitamin C, but they do require the following nutritional composition in their diet:
|Adult gerbils:||12% protein, 6-8% fat|
|Juveniles and Breeding Adults:||16-18% protein, 7-9% fat|
|Gerbils older than 2 years:||10-11% protein, 3-5% fat|
Hence, avoid mixes that are excessively high in protein or fat, or that contain too many sunflower seeds. You may remove the sunflower seeds in the mix and feed them as treats though unflavoured pumpkin seeds are preferred as it is lower in fat.
For young gerbils (below 4 months) and breeding moms, supplement extra protein regularly, in the form of oats, wheatgerm, dog/cat kibble, boiled egg, mealworms, etc – all in small quantities, of course.
Gerbils should have constant access to clean drinking water. A glass water bottle is recommended as gerbils can easily chew up plastic ones. Make sure to check if the water bottle is jammed/leaking. A leaking bottle can quickly soil the bedding, encourage fungal and bacteria growth, and cause health issues.
For a basic setup, we recommend adding the following items: a ceramic food bowl, a clean glass jar (medium or large-sized like pasta sauce/coffee bean jars are good) for digging, and wooden or ceramic hideout(s).
A sand bowl (with a layer of bathing sand) can be given, and we recommend chinchilla bathing sand over hamster sands. Use only wood, glass or ceramic items in your gerbil housing.
Many gerbils also enjoy running on wheels though not all will use them. Get a medium-sized wheel large enough that the gerbils' back can be held relatively straight while running. (usually no smaller than 21cm).
A good wheel should have a solid surface and back wall. Do not use wheels with large gaps and support struts that can trap gerbils' tails or feet. Take note that a gerbil will also jump into a spinning wheel even when his friend is running top speed in it.
Other enrichments that are well-loved and many gerbil enthusiasts swear by are empty toilet roll tubes, crushed plain paper, and ink-free cardboard boxes. (Avoid egg cartons for their bacteria, waxed cardboards, heavily printed documents, newspapers and Thermal receipts). These will usually be shredded in no time and become part of the bedding.
When introducing toys with openings, ensure the opening is wide enough not to trap the gerbil's head as they are curious and like to stick their heads into things.
Gerbils are hardy rodents amongst the other choices of small pets but can also fall ill with old age or fall out. Known as declanning, this is when a stable social unit start rejecting the current state of affairs, leading to fight among themselves.
It's best to be prepared for potential separations should a declan happen or when one gerbil in a bonded pair passes on. A re-introduction process is subsequently required, so you do not keep any gerbil alone.
Despite being fairly low maintenance pets, you should find a gerbil-savvy vet clinic in advance: Great for emergencies, and good-to-know for future vet visits. You also need to consider regular interaction with your gerbils and give them a simple health check to ensure problems are spotted and treated early.
Lastly, don't give up on your gerbils, even if their health encounters some setback. Remember once you make the decision to bring them into your life, they have only you, as a guardian and friend to hold onto in this world, in their world.
By: GERBILS SINGAPORE
Text: Elaine Tham and Aaron Koh
Photos: Trina Ng
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