Why we dig gerbils

Gerbils are active and entertaining pets, but there are things they require to be completely happy, including an environment that caters for their very specific gerbil needs

Posted: 10 February 2017

Why we dig gerbils


There are many species of gerbils, though the Mongolian gerbil is the type most commonly kept as a pet.

Their scientific name Meriones unguiculatus translates as ‘little clawed warrior’. These burrowing rodents are naturally adapted to desert environments in Africa, India and Asia. Although very agile, they can’t climb well due to fur covering the soles of their feet.

Roommates required

In the wild, gerbils live in extended families of one breeding pair and their offspring of several generations. Pet gerbils need at least one companion and are happiest in same-sex pairs or small groups as they breed from three months old and can swiftly produce a litter of four to 10 babies every 24 days…

Somewhere to burrow

Burrowing is a very important behaviour for all gerbils. Wild gerbils live in dry climates, in large, deep burrows that they dig to protect them from extremes of weather and predators – their long hind legs are used extensively during digging. Pet gerbils require a dry, draught-free place to live, not in direct sunlight or next to a radiator – an ideal temperature range is 20-24°C– and are best housed in a special gerbilarium with solid glass walls and a secure wire-mesh top. This should be at least 50cm high to allow your gerbils to dig to their heart’s content and still have room to emerge above ground and stand fully upright (an adult gerbil is approximately 12cm tall),

Gerbils need a thick layer of dust-extracted bedding – 20-30cm high – to dig into. Organic soil or peat are great natural beddings (don’t use soil from your garden as it may contain harmful bacteria or parasites) along with meadow or Timothy hay, plus shredded paper for nesting. Don’t use fluffy material as this can wrap around gerbils’ limbs and injure them, or sawdust, which can cause respiratory problems. Because gerbils originate from desert areas, they do not produce much waste, so it’s easy to keep their environment clean. Don’t allow the bedding material to become damp and clean their home once a week. Remember to transfer a small amount of used but unsoiled bedding material when you clean out your gerbilarium as cleaning can be stressful and removing all familiar odours may trigger fighting.

Something to gnaw on

Gerbils love to gnaw. They shred material to use in nesting, which also helps to keep their teeth short (as they never stop growing). Gerbils particularly like willow/hazel/beech/birch/pine/ and branches from fruit trees (make sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticide) to climb on and gnaw at, or wooden gnaw sticks Your text to link here… . Don’t use ivy/yew/holly as these are poisonous.

Something to shred

These small rodents are highly motivated to shred gnaw-able material such as ink-free cardboard or paper and hay. Empty toilet rolls, egg cartons or plain cardboard boxes are ideal. They’ll have tons of fun running through cardboard tubes and then shredding them. Just imagine what they’ll do with a fun cardboard castle Your text to link here…

Space to exercise

Gerbils love to play together day and night, so their gerbilarium needs to be as spacious as possible. A running wheel can help, as long as it is of good quality with a large diameter – such as one intended for rats. 

A scent marker

Gerbils of both sexes have a strong motivation to scent-mark their territory using their bellies and feet. Gerbils recognise each other by their own scent and females also scent-mark their pups. A large, flat stone will be welcomed for scent-marking and can also be useful to wear down claws so they don’t grow too long. They may even use it as a lookout point!

Somewhere to hide

In addition to the opportunity to dig their own shelters, provide your gerbils with a dark nesting box which is large enough for it to set up a food store, to sleep, and to comfortably move around in, ideally with multiple entrances to avoid dominant animals trapping others inside. A clay flowerpot cut in half makes a good sleeping area – don’t use anything made of wood or plastic or these crafty critters will demolish it.

A sand bath

A shallow tray filled with clean, fine sand/’chinchilla dust’ will provide your gerbils with the perfect place to bathe in daily to maintain their coat in good condition. Remove/sieve clean after use. 

Water on tap

Fresh, clean drinking water must always be available, in a drinking bottle with a metal sipper tube – water bowls will be tipped over and buried. Check the water bottle daily for leaks and/or blockages.

A varied diet

Choose a good quality, balanced diet especially for gerbils, such as Your text to link here… containing all the nutrients and minerals they need. Scatter food on the surface of the bedding to help prevent squabbling and provide enriching foraging opportunities. Gerbils like to sit up and hold pieces of food to gnaw and should be given fresh vegetables and fruit – so add fruit (pear, melon, apple, oranges) and vegetables (broccoli, cucumber, carrot, pumpkin and fennel) to supplement their rations. Never give your pets grapes, rhubarb, potatoes or tomato leaves as these are poisonous to rodents. Use earthenware or stainless steel feed bowls – but don’t worry about them burying their food bowl under their bedding, as it’s natural for them to hoard food. You will need to remove any stale food items that they’ve gerbiled-away.

Considerate humans

Gerbils have very acute hearing and assume that they are in danger if they hear loud noises. If a gerbil perceives a threat, they will thump their hind feet rapidly, which will prompt the whole group to disappear into the burrow. House them away from items that can generate ultrasound – such as TVs, computer screens, vacuum cleaners or sources of running water. Gerbils communicate using ultrasonic frequencies so are sensitive to some sounds that we cannot hear. 

Careful handling

Gerbils are usually happy to be handled, although some can be timid. Start by placing your hand in the tank so the gerbils can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them. Pick up a gerbil by placing your hand around its body, just behind the forelegs, and support the hindquarters in your other hand. Never handle a gerbil by the end of its tail. Children should only handle gerbils under adult supervision in case they accidentally squeeze too hard. Interact with your gerbils every day, and handle them often. Offer a treat such as pumpkin seeds to help you bond with your pets.

Sources: rspca.org.uk, bluecross.org.uk