Purchasing a Gerbil
Pet Store or Breeder?
While the nearest pet store may seem like the most convenient place to purchase a gerbil, it may not always be the best choice. Pet store gerbils are often unused to human hands, and sometimes have broken tails from pet store owners who have picked them up by their tails once to often. Also, most pet stores will tell you that they cannot guarantee the gender of their pets. More than a few first-time owners of gerbils have turned out to be breeders when their pair of males suddenly had pups1. Some of the smaller pet store chains will often leave brothers and sisters of the same litter in the same tank until well after they reach maturity, and this can lead to in-breeding. Also, pet store owners will often place two unfamiliar gerbils together, which can lead to fighting and unsightly injuries. All this is not to say that pet stores don't care about their pets, but since most of them have dozens of animals, it would be impossible for them to know all of the subtle nuances of every animal they keep. This is why you might want to consider adopting your gerbils from a competent gerbil breeder.
When you visit a gerbil breeder, you will often be able to see the parents and grandparents of the gerbils you want to adopt2. If they are prone to strange diseases, or exhibit any odd behaviors, you will know that those aren't the gerbils for you.
How Many Gerbils
A lot of people ask us whether they should get one or two gerbils. In our humble opinion, you should get at least two. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are highly social creatures who thrive in groups of two, three, and sometimes more3. By themselves they will get depressed and lonely (just like you would if you never saw any other people) and will usually not live as long as gerbils who live in groups. If you are not planning on breeding gerbils, the best thing you can do is get a pair of males or a pair of females. If properly introduced, a same-gendered pair of gerbils will live happily together, and will typically form a tight bond4.
What to Look For
There are several things you will want to look for when purchasing a gerbil:
You will also want to look for the gerbils that are the most curious. You will know who these gerbils are because they will walk up to the front of the cage when they see you approaching (although some may be asleep, but this is normal since gerbils sleep partly in the day, and partly at night)13. Have the breeder or pet store clerk take the cage off the shelf so that you can handle the gerbils. Nearly all gerbils will run away when you try and catch them (because in the wild, most of their predators will try and swoop down on them from above) but you can usually pick them up by scooping them up in your two cupped hands. A curious gerbil will try and explore your hand, provided you are holding them in a stable position (i.e., not dangling from your two fingers).
Ideally, you want to choose gerbils that are from the same litter and that are about six to eight weeks of age14. Gerbils at this age will often get along well but if they don't (or if you can't find gerbils that are this young) you will want to use the Split Cage Method to introduce your gerbils to each other.
What to Avoid
You will generally want to avoid gerbils that:
To tell what gender your gerbils are, hold them in your hand and turn them over on their back. They will probably not like this, but you will only be doing this for a short time, and it is much safer than lifting them up by their tail, which could break. At three weeks of age, female gerbils can be distinguished from males because the distance between their urinary and their anal openings is much smaller20. At five to seven weeks of age, you will be able to distinguish a male because of its prominent testicles. Also, while a female gerbil will have a more rounded rump, a male gerbil will have a more tapered rump21. The easiest and most effective thing to do is to have the breeder or store clerk help you compare two gerbils at the same time22.
A Gerbil Lifespan
Although most gerbils live to be about two to four years of age, some gerbils have been known to live to be five or six. These are rare gerbils, though, and you shouldn't feel bad if your gerbils do not live to be that old.
Introducing New Gerbils
In the wild, gerbils are very territorial. They live in large groups and will usually attack unfamiliar gerbils who cross the boundaries into their territory. This is where they get the scientific name, "Meriones unguiculatus" (or, "little clawed warrior). In pet stores and homes, gerbils will behave the same way towards gerbils that they are not familiar with, and will often fight them to the death23. If you pair together two gerbils who are 7 or 8 weeks of age or younger, they will usually get along well. However, if you are trying to pair together two adult gerbils, or an adult gerbil and a younger gerbil, you will probably want to use the split cage method24.
When introducing two unfamiliar gerbils, you should be sure to wear gloves in case a fight breaks out. Although gerbils have small teeth, they are very sharp and can easily penetrate human skin25. Gerbil introductions will generally go better if both gerbils have been isolated for a little while and become lonesome26. It should also be noted that, despite your best efforts, some gerbils will simply never accept a strange gerbil27. These gerbils are rare, though, and it is not likely that you will come across them. Also, never attempt to split cage a new gerbil with a pair that has already been bonded28. The two gerbils that have already been bonded will most likely gang up on the third, causing endless scuffles.
The idea behind the "split cage" method is that you can get any two gerbils used to each other if you separate them, but still allow them to see and smell each other. To "split cage" your gerbils, place an aquarium divider in your cage to divide it in two. You can usually find an aquarium divider in the fish section of your pet store, but if you can't, you can make one yourself out of wire29. You can make your own split cage by using firm, ¼" to ½" hardware cloth30. You will want to place the cloth from corner to corner to make it more secure31. Make sure that the divider fits in tightly, because your gerbils are going to crawl all over it trying to get to the strange gerbil on the other side32. If you use wire, though, make sure that the openings are small enough so that the gerbils cannot poke their nose or paws through them, as the other gerbil will usually try to nip at them33. Also, if the wire is too pointy, some gerbils may shave off their fur as they try to poke their heads through it.
The important thing about your divider, though, is that there are enough openings so that the gerbils can smell each other. This way, they can get used to each other's scent and over time, an "enemy" gerbil will become a friendly gerbil34. You will want to switch your gerbils about four to six times a day, and repeat this routine for three to seven days35. Many gerbils will mark their territory (by rubbing their bellies on the ground) each time they are switched. This is good, as it will help the other gerbil get used to their smell when they are switched. After about a week, you can remove the divider and watch your gerbils for about a half an hour to make sure they don't fight36. During this time you'll want to be wearing gloves in case a fight breaks out. After about a half an hour you can relax a little, but you should still keep an eye on them for the rest of the day37. If you have to leave at any time during the rest of the day, you should probably replace the divider38. If a fight breaks out at any time, separate the gerbils immediately. If the gerbils are just boxing then this is okay, since even the most bonded gerbils sometimes box39. However, if one gerbil springs into the air as the other runs at it, or if the gerbils start rolling around in a ball fight, you must separate them at once40. Once you see the gerbils sleeping together in the same nest, you will know that they are getting along just fine41.
If you try the split cage method three or more times and it still doesn't work, your gerbils will probably never get along well42. Many gerbils will never get along well with another gerbil if they are kept alone for long enough43. Since gerbils are a matriarchal species, it is much easier to introduce males than it is to introduce the more aggressive females. You will probably have to spend more time "split caging" females than you will males44. While males can often be kept in groups of up to seven, females should not be kept in groups of more than two or three.
Another way you can introduce two unfamiliar gerbils is by using the "scent mask" method. What you do is take vanilla or cheap perfume, and put it on the gerbils' nose and scent mark (a small patch of missing fur on their belly)45. The idea is that the stranger scent will be eliminated immediately, and will return only gradually over time as the two gerbils get used to each others' scent46. You will also want to clean out the tank and re-arrange all landmarks such as food dishes, water bottles and toys, so that the tank appears to be neutral territory to both gerbils47. You will also want to wear gloves as you watch the gerbils, and keep a very close eye on them for about an hour to make sure they don't fight48. You will also want to keep an eye on them for the rest of the day. This method typically doesn't work as well as the split cage method, but sometimes it works when the split cage method doesn't49. This method is often used when a mother dies or cannot produce enough milk for all of her pups and her pups need to be fostered out to a new mother.
Page last updated: Thurs. Sep. 22, 2005