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How to Care for Gerbils

Gerbils are naturally friendly and curious, but, like many other "pocket pets," they often end up at shelters because their caregivers are unable to provide them with adequate companionship and care. Gerbils can be happy and healthy almost anywhere—including during their temporary stay at your shelter—provided you follow these guidelines.

© Susie Duckworth

1. Keep Old Friends Together

Unlike hamsters, who are solitary creatures, gerbils are naturally social and friendly to humans—and to familiar gerbils. If they're housed together from a young age, they'll probably be happy as clams. So if you receive surrendered same-sex gerbils who have been living together, there's probably no need to separate them when they come into your shelter. But beware of introducing new gerbils to the cage! Gerbils are clannish, and if you try to place newcomers together, they may live up to the meaning of their Latin name: "little clawed warriors."

© Susie Duckworth

2. Give Them Cool Digs

In the wild, gerbils inhabit cool, arid places; you should try to house them in similar conditions. A quiet, dimly lit space far away from noisy dog kennels is best. Use a cage with a solid floor—a converted aquarium tank works well. If you must use a wire cage, make sure that the bars are no more than a centimeter apart; gerbils may look plump, but they can squeeze through small spaces as if they were made of jello. They're also great jumpers, so make sure their temporary home has a secure top. Line the tank with unprinted newspaper, and add timothy hay or shredded paper for burrowing. Avoid cedar shavings, which can irritate gerbils' respiratory systems and livers. Finally, furnish a gerbil home with a water bottle, a nest box, exercise toys, chewing blocks, and lengths of paper-towel tubes for hiding. You'll have created the ultimate in creature comfort.

© Susie Duckworth

3. Give Them the Spice of Life

Though gerbils love sunflower seeds, these low-calcium, high-fat grains should not form the basis of their diet. Give your guests a variety of goodies, and they'll be happy and healthy. The main substance of their meals should be a mix of dried kidney and lima beans, lentils, and black-eyed peas. Supplement these with puffed wheat; dried bananas, carrots, and apples; unshelled, unsalted peanuts; rabbit food pellets; color-free dry dog and cat food; and unsalted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Add alfalfa hay and fresh veggies—broccoli, carrots, corn, and cauliflower—on a regular basis, and your gerbils will have the gourmet diet they crave. Make sure your guests always have clean water in their hanging bottles.

© Susie Duckworth

4. Ensure Zero Population Growth

Male and female gerbils share the care for their offspring in a way that would shame many human couples. But while family loyalty is one of the animals' sweetest traits, gerbils do take family to extremes, so be sure to separate males from females. Gerbils have an average of five pups per litter and can have litters every month, so take care to prevent the gerbils in your care from breeding. Like most small rodents, they reach sexual maturity at about five weeks of age; individual animals might mature sooner, however, so separation at 21 days is the safest policy.

© Susie Duckworth

5. Keep House

Gerbils are among the cleanest rodents. They create tidy spaces, and they ask no less of their keepers. Help them out by cleaning their bathroom area daily—yes, believe it or not, these little guys can be trained to use the same area. The bedding in the rest of the cage or tank should be changed twice a week, and the tank should be disinfected and allowed to dry before adding new bedding and replacing paper-towel tubes and playthings. Keep your gerbils in another cage while you clean and disinfect their living space.


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